Following a critically acclaimed run in 2019 and a filmed performance streaming during the first lockdown in 2020, Small Island makes a welcome return to the stage with an encore season at National Theatre. I had streamed the show 2 years ago so couldn't resist the chance to see what it would be like in person - what I wasn't prepared for was just how much more the show could resonate with me.
Based on the 2004 novel by Andrea Levy, Small Island tells the story of three individuals - Hortense, Gilbert and Queenie, whose seemingly unconnected stories come together to reveal intimate connections. Taking in their lives through the Second World War, the action continues until the arrival of HMT Empire Windrush at Tilbury as the story moves from Jamaica to England throughout.
Don't let the title deceive you - this is no small show. Nearly 3 hours in length (not including an interval) the expert storytelling means the time flies past in a constantly entertaining and riveting show. Act one is predominantly split between our three main characters as their stories are established. It isn't immediately clear how these stories could connect as they all seem worlds away from each other, but the clues begin as act one draws to a close with their increasingly closer connections proving ultimately satisfying as the show draws to its conclusion.
With expert direction from Rufus Norris, the set design from Katrina Lindsay is immediately impressive, with the stage beautifully filled with water thanks to genius video projections from Jon Driscoll. A revolve allows scenes and stories to transition easily with the various rooms in Queenie's London home providing a particularly inspired touch. Fantastic lighting design from Paul Anderson and sound from Ian Dickinson leads to an atmospheric intro as we are immersed into a Hurricane in the Olivier Theatre.
Small Island boasts a huge cast with close to 40 actors playing their part in the story - seeing them all together as the show reaches its conclusion really drives home how many people it takes to make a show like this come alive - after all, no man is an island.
Leonie Elliott is a marvel as Hortense, always captivating to watch as her character goes on a journey both metaphorically and physically. Mirren Mack is sensational as Queenie, providing some of the most emotional moments of the play, always portrayed with a believability and sensitivity. As Gilbert,/ Leemore Marrett Jr is utterly charming, giving us some of the biggest laugh out loud moments of the play and letting the audience fall in love with him quicker than some of the other characters too.
While those are the three main roles, Small Island has no shortage of amazing supporting characters. Elliot Barnes-Worrell's appearances as Michael may be fleeting but they are always fresh in your mind, Rachel Lumberg makes the most of very little stage time as Aunt Dorothy with the most hilarious demise you are likely to see on stage, while David Fielder has one of the most memorable roles as Arthur, despite rarely making a sound on stage, managing to break your heart in a truly upsetting turn of events.
The writing proves a testament to how fantastic this play is. Andrea Levy's novel is adapted by Helen Edmundson to fill the stage with heart and hilarity. Incredibly well written, the dialogue flows naturally with some wickedly funny lines. There are more serious themes at play though, with topics of racism and the atrocities of war ever-present throughout. Managing to handle the issues sensitively while never glossing over how awful they can be, Small Island has no shortage of depth to it.
Overall, Small Island is theatre at its best. Never shying away from harder issues, the mix of humour and sensitive subjects takes you on a journey and immerses you into the world of the characters. Some incredible performances from a supremely talented cast lift the already amazing source material to new heights. Fabulous staging and a truly gripping story that comes together effortlessly means this is a night at the theatre you will never forget.
Small Island plays at the Olivier Theatre until April 30th. Tickets from https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/small-island