They fought for their ‘mother country’ yet the Windrush generation, who came to Britain from Jamaica to seek a better lives for themselves, were treated like the enemy.
Andrea Levy’s award-winning and sprawling epic, Small Island, which opened at The National Theatre this week, retells an uneasy moment in Britain’s recent history through the eyes of the people involved.
But what a glorious story it is. Rich in humour, pathos and compassion, Small Island, grips from the opening hurricane that tears through the West Indies, to a last gasp, devastating scene, that will leave you shocked.
Adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson this multi award-winning tale pulls no punches. The dialogue is peppered with racist slurs that were in common usage in the 1950s and onwards, and they genuinely rattled the multi-cultural first night audience.
Told over three hours Small Island interweaves the stories of Jamaicans Hortense, Michael and Gilbert and Lincolnshire slaughterman’s daughter, Queenie, from the 1940s, through World War II and on to the 1950s.
It chronicles the hopes and dreams of the islanders who looked to their ‘homeland’ to build a future for themselves only to find racism, bigotry and open hostility when they arrive.
Hortense (a splendid Leah Harvey), abandoned at birth by her parents, and raised by a strict, Bible-thumping uncle, works as a teaching assistant.
Her life is hard and humourless, only relieved by the return of her childhood friend and cousin, Michael.
But Michael announces that he is joining the RAF to do his bit for the mother country, leaving Hortense feeling abandoned.
We meet Queenie (an engaging Aisling Loftus) who yearns to get away from her parents’ farm where her dad butchers meat (you may want to look away when her dad has his hands in the innards of a disembowelled pig).
She jumps at the chance when an aunt offers her a job in her London sweet shop and it is where she meets the shy and reticent – actually rather dry and boring – Bernard, the bank clerk.
Then there’s Gilbert who also enlists, hoping that a spell in the RAF will be followed by a place at an English university to study Law.
All three strands become wrapped up in each other as their stories play out.
But the atmosphere becoming darker after the interval as, post-war, everyone tries to rebuild their shattered lives.
“England is where the future lies,” says Gilbert while Hortense declares “England is my golden life”.
What happens to Queenie, Hortense and the men will make you laugh and cry in equal measure.
It is a sweeping saga that captures your heart and director Rufus Norris uses every inch of the vast Olivier stage to tell the story.
It’s impossible not to feel for Hortense, who had been forced to skivvy since childhood, or the defiant Queenie who risks reputation and respect by taking in immigrant lodgers.
The scenes, post-war, find Hortense in an alien land where she is abused and stared at on the streets. Gilbert fares no better.
But while you become caught up in the narrative it is one actor’s intimate portrayal as a victim of war which leaves a lasting impression.
Queenie’s father-in-law, Arthur, suffered shell-shock after WWI. He cannot speak and occasionally suffers fits. Arthur carries a note in his pocket telling people to return him home should he be found wandering.
David Fielder, as Arthur, doesn’t say a word throughout but he gives the most heart-rending and memorable performance of the play.
Tragically Andrea Levy didn’t live to see this terrifically moving production. She died from breast cancer in February.
But Helen Edmundson’s fine adaptation is a fitting tribute both to its author and to the determination and endurance of the Windrush generation. It really is story-telling at its finest.
Small Island runs on the Olivier stage until August 10. It will be broadcast live to more than 700 UK cinema screens and worldwide, on June 27 as part of the NT Live initiative.
Story-telling at its finest. Andrea Levy’s sweeping epic is joyous, compelling and deeply moving. It will break your heart.