Sailing into history

 

When Andrea Levy wrote Small Island (National Theatre) in 2004 she said “If every writer in Britain were to write about the war years there would still be stories to be told…and Caribbean people got left out of the telling of that story, so I am attempting to put them back into it…[but] I want to tell stories from the black and white experience.” Set in 1948, as Britain emerged from the trauma of World War II it revolves around four main characters – Hortense (Leonie Elliott), Queenie (Mirren Mack) Gilbert (Leemore Marrett Jr) and Bernard (Martin Hutson).

Helen Edmundson’s adaptation is ambitious in scope and scale and she carefully reframes the story to give it an easy to follow chronology of post-war Jamaican immigrants coming to the ‘Mother Country’ shortly after many of them had fought in the War. Despite the enormity of its significance in colonial history there is an intimacy and exposition of human frailty in Rufus Norris’s production (a revival from 2019) which emotionally connects us to the lives of individuals impacted by the events in different ways.

Hortense is itching to get away from her small island as is RAF pilot Gilbert believing that their prospects in England are great, in his case believing that fighting in the war gives him ideal credentials. Meanwhile white working-class Queenie finds herself in a passionless marriage with stilted Bernard who leaves to join the war effort, taking his limp libido with him. She takes the opportunity to try her luck in London, soon hooking up in an interracial relationship with dashing Jamaican war pilot Michael (Elliot Barnes-Worrell). All their experiences meld into one as their dreams turn into the realities of prejudice, discrimination and loss. Much of the first half is seen through the prism of Queenie’s ups and downs setting the scene for what follows in a tumultuous second part. That is immediately preceded by the poignant moment when we see HMT Empire Windrush (a name that has become synonymous with the UK government’s “hostile environment”) setting sail for the United Kingdom with over one thousand West Indian immigrants on board. This is one of Jon Driscoll’s panoply of evocative projections which convey beautiful pictorial and politically important context.

The portrayal of the lead characters are excellent with Marrett Jr bringing charm, charisma and dignity to Gilbert while Elliott’s Hortense, energised and determined, soon crumbles when confronted with vitriol and opposition in the supposed land of opportunity. Mack meanwhile, in the role that provides much of the theatrical glue to a complex story, gives us a Queenie whose outward appearance of fun and frivolity belies a woman with true grit. This reflective and moving production is a testament to Levy and all those like her who are attempting to give a voice to those who were the products of the British Empire and Colonialism. Something you rarely find in school history books.

And Sotira Kyriakides is charmed by the boys, also at war…

The faded Victorian grandeur of Wilton’s Music Hall is the perfect setting for Sasha Regan’s lively and imaginative all-male production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s popular opera, HMS Pinafore. This opera exemplifies the poignancy of war and the sadness of forbidden love. Set in the hold of a World War II battleship, the show opens in the sparsely furnished crew’s quarters, where we see the men exercising energetically – performing push ups and sparring in their underwear, a sight for leering eyes!

Whilst all the performers are superb, special mention must be made of Sam Kipling’s falsetto Josephine, whose enthusiastic ovation in the second act was thoroughly deserved. Richard Russell Edwards’ cousin Hebe was complemented by his part in the chorus in a different voice. Scott Armstrong’s Little Buttercup – by several inches the tallest player in the cast – again portrayed love and regret. Ashley Jacobs on piano played Sullivan’s score to perfection, and Lizzie Gee’s choreography was inspired and assured. Go and be uplifted and delighted by this vigorous and joyous show, which runs until 19 April.

 

Small Island – www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

H.M.S Pinafore – www.wiltons.org.uk

 

 

 

 

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