24 February 2022
5.0 out of 5.0 stars
As I’d heard so much talk about the previous run of Small Island, I booked a seat for the first preview when it came around again. And I’m very glad I did, this is definitely a production not to be missed!
While it’s a long show, running 3hrs and 15 mins, it is worth every second and one of the most moving productions I have seen in a long time. Small Island is based on the book of the same name by Andrea Levy, and focuses on a handful of characters throughout WWII and the reality of life for Jamaican immigrants in post-war Britain.
The show begins with the childhood and youth of Hortense, a young woman growing up in rural Jamaica, and her cousin Michael who signs up to join the war effort. From here we change scenes to follow Queenie from her Lincolnshire roots to busy London, where she tries to build a new life as the war unfolds around her. When her somewhat stuck-up husband is challenged by her eagerness to help those affected by the London bombings, he also signs up and leaves her to fend for herself. Intertwined with these stories, we meet Gilbert, an ambitious Jamaican man who dreams of moving to England to become a lawyer.
As the story unfolds, the characters meet through chance as their lives intersect in unexpected ways. While Queenie is full of life and hope, Hortense becomes more embittered and stern, while Gilbert faces very different challenges of his own. After the war ends, all three are thoroughly changed by their experiences, but still full of dreams for the future. As Gilbert boards the HMT Empire Windrush, he sets out to change all of their lives in ways none of them could have foreseen.
I was a bit apprehensive about the length of the show, but the time just flies by and when the final scene wrapped up, I wasn’t quite ready to let go yet. The characters are brought to life so vividly, their emotional depth so touching, it was easy to become fully invested in their destinies and wanting to stay with them for just a little longer. Changed by the challenges of their early lives, a devastating war, unkept promises, and especially the harsh reality of how Black immigrants were treated in a country devastated by a harsh war, the struggle, disappointments and fear were so palatable and intense.
Staging is absolutely gorgeous, with rustic sets zipping up and down from the floor, a few comical elements thrown in to lighten the mood, simple elements like window frames and lights changing scenes thoroughly, and a variety of characters bringing everything to life. There are often groups of people walking across the stage to fill it with life and give the sense of a busy city minding its own business around the main characters, barely taking notice of them at all. It’s a stunning show full of hope, love, fear, and devastation. If you only see one show this year, do yourself a favour and make it this one!
Small Island is absolutely the most emotionally touching and visceral production I have seen in a very long time. Before the last scene even fully finished, the audience jumped to their feet to give a very well deserved standing ovation to this extraordinary cast.