‘Small Island’ chronicles a living history of migrant struggle

Husna Rizvi reviews the stage adaptation of Andrea Levy’s Windrush epic.

Gershwyn Eustache Jnr (playing Gilbert) and Leah Harvey (playing Hortense) in Small Island. Credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

I’ve come to think art and politics are things that don’t mix well. Empire, imperialism and plunder are especially knotty, difficult concepts to do justice to on a theatre stage.

But the production of Small Island at the National Theatre has forced a re-think. The play does precisely this, and it does it extremely well. On the black revolving floor of the Olivier Stage, the cast and crew perform the tangled history of Jamaica and the UK in the post-war period.

Adapted from a book written by the late Andrea Levy, a chronicler of the Windrush Generation whose own parents arrived on the ship, Small Island is told through the eyes of Caribbean migrants, Hortense and Gilbert. The story follows both characters as they settle and try to make ends meet in London.

After a flood of racist rejections from landlords, the couple eventually find lodgings and befriend a white British woman, Queenie. As they acquaint themselves with post-war Britain, they see their expectations of the benevolent ‘Mother Country’ slowly dismantled in front of their eyes.

For the couple, even the mundane minutiae of daily life – finding work, doing errands – is marked by harassment and violence.

Gilbert, an aspiring lawyer, who also hoped to serve in the war as a gunman, ends up driving bags of fertilizer up and down Lincolnshire training camps. Hortense too quickly learns her teaching qualifications from back home mean nothing in Britain. Slowly, you watch the characters harden.

As this unfolds onstage, I hear a whisper from behind me: ‘Nothing’s changed,’ an audience member mutters quietly to themselves. Small Island’s nods to the present are poignant and affecting. In the opening scene, an adult Hortense ushers us through a childhood memory of her cousin Michael. Hortense, who was separated from her biological mother at birth, is told by her cousin frankly: ‘When children are torn from their mothers, bad things happen.’

Contrast Hortense’s family struggles with those of today’s Windrush descendents, and you’ll find that this scene in particular stings. Last year, the UK Home Office was found to have detained, denied legal rights and deported at least 83 people, including the elderly.

This recent, ongoing scandal has exposed the hypocrisy of the ‘Mother Country’ that pretends to celebrate but ultimately oppresses its Caribbean citizens. Small Island, if anything, is about the broken promise of meaningful citizenship. Understanding those who made the journey, whose promises were broken is an urgent task.

And it’s in these solipsistic memories, in which Hortense gazes at her younger self, that she realises who she must be to navigate Britain – hard, stoic – only letting herself express optimism in those solitary moments.

But while the play began by weaving a tapestry of how Empire fractured the lives and families of black Britons, it’s ultimately geared towards the healing of the family.

As Queenie falls pregnant by Hortense’s cousin Michael, (unbeknown to Hortense), she begs the couple to adopt her child. It’s bittersweet – an admission she can’t fully embrace the racial identity of her baby – but the couple accept him with open arms. And in this way, they rediscover moments of tenderness in each other.

Multiple, critical threads move throughout the play at once: Queenie’s struggle to feel desirable; Gilbert’s demonization as a sexual predator, Hortense’s vulnerable mental health – all speak to the raced and gendered misery that burdens each character in different ways.

Of the many stories out there about the Windrush Generation, Small Island constructs a living, powerful history – not just of British Caribbean migrants, but one that nods to all postcolonial migrants whose land was stolen, whose labour continues to be exploited and whose families continue to be fractured in the name of Empire.

Bringing a painful, human quality to what’s often reduced to the dispassionate, factual humdrum of a news story, Small Island’s complicated, joyful and exceedingly funny characters restore a sense of life and agency to the developing archive of the Windrush Generation.

Small Island is showing at the National Theatre until 10 August. Tickets are available through Friday rush and returns – encore shows will be screened at selected cinemas.