Small Island: the Book or the Play?
Updated: Aug 28, 2019
Last week I was lucky enough to watch the final performance of Helen Edmundson’s National Theatre production of Small Island, based on the popular novel written by Andrea Levy. Having studied Small Island previously in my second year at University, and read it for a second time earlier this year, I thought it might be nice to weigh up my thoughts on both the book and the play, and how they compare to one another.
I’ll start off by saying that I really genuinely enjoyed both the book and play, both I felt paid a respectful homage to Windrush generation immigrants and the part many of Britain’s colonies had played during the First World War. For those who haven’t read Small Island, it tells the story of post-war Caribbean migration from the perspective of four characters: Hortense and Gilbert, who migrate from Jamaica to London during the 1940’s, Queenie, who takes them in as lodgers and Bernard, a British RAF soldier and husband to Queenie. The polyphonic narrative explores the effects of immigration and multiculturalism, at a time when there was still a very imperial mindset held by people in Britain.
Probably the most noticeable difference between the novel and the play was the exclusion of Bernard’s war memoirs. While the book was told from the perspective of four characters, the play only really focused on three. Although Bernard’s accounts were of my least favourite parts of the book, I think they did hold some importance in understanding why he acted as he did upon his return to England after the war had ended.
In the book Bernard’s reflex racism is explained by his experiences of being a British soldier during Partition in India. After being stationed abroad for a number of years, he comes home from war to find the effects of colonialism and immigration are not limited to far off continents, but rather are now (quite literally) on his doorstep. Meanwhile, the Bernard from the play came across as a sinister villain, hateful for no reason, which I don’t think was Levy’s intention.
I do feel it was a missed opportunity that Bernard’s time in India wasn’t touched upon in the play. Partition is a point in history that few seem to know much about, especially those who aren’t from one of the communities affected, so it would have been nice for this to have been addressed, as it had been in the novel.
A part of me was also disappointed that Gilbert’s time in service to the British army wasn’t shown, or the racism he experienced from the American GI’s. For me, a big part of Small Island’s charm was in its side plots. These provided a much wider perspective to post-war migration, the ‘mother country’ illusion and its lasting impact on immigrant generations.
Because of this, the play’s focus was less about the war and much more about the relationships between the three main characters. I think Leah Harvey and Gershwyn Eustache Jnr’s portrayals of Hortense and Gilbert were potentially the highlight of the entire production, the chemistry between the two characters was perfect and their performances were very true to the book (in my opinion anyway!) I particularly love the scene where Hortense enters their room in Queenie’s house for the first time. This was funny in the book, but really came alive in the play, chamber pot spillages and all.
Contrary to other reviews I have read about the play, I do think the staging was impressive. The scenes were set on a rotating platform which made transitions fluid, the bright colours of Jamaica drastically opposing the dull, post-war melancholy of London. The use of music, sound effects and period-appropriate costumes added to the effect. These I could not fault.
I loved both the book and the play. What the play did do, it did extremely well. I just wish it spent a little more time working in some of the sub-plots which had made the book so special to me.