Doing justice to Windrush generation
Small Island (Olivier, National Theatre) Verdict: Windrush epic unfurls beautifully The Half God Of Rainfall (Kiln Theatre, London) Verdict: Gutsy poetic fantasy
We’ve had Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island serialised on Tv with Naomie Harris, Ruth Wilson and Benedict Cumberbatch. So this isn’t exactly the most groundbreaking programming at the National Theatre.
But the story, about Jamaican immigrants after World War II, does come in the wake of last year’s Windrush scandal. And where it’s always salutary to take stock of our social history, it’s even better to see audiences in our country’s theatrical flagship looking a little less pale.
But the best thing about Rufus Norris’s fluent production is a spectacular design by Katrina Lindsay. It contrasts the green vistas of Jamaica’s mountains with monochrome images of gloomy, bombed-out London.
Beneath these, underground hydraulics deliver furniture and actors onto the stage like a multidimensional cuckoo clock. All of which allows Helen edmundson’s adaptation to catch the epic sweep of Levy’s novel.
The first half of the three-and-aquarter-hour epic is flushed with the optimism of youth. Leah Harvey is deceptively strait-laced as the novel’s heroine, Hortense, who’s survived a tough but still relatively idyllic Jamaican childhood
and resolved to teach in england. Her dreams of social mobility, however, run aground on the dank reality of post-war Britain offering only racism, filthy weather and even worse fruit.
As her opposite number in Britain, Aisling Loftus’s Queenie is a gutsy Northerner surprised that a loveless marriage yields only low-grade lovemaking.
Slightly stereotypically, this is resolved by a Jamaican loverman in her boarding house, and she goes on to give birth, with a horrified Hortense as her virgin midwife.
The second half loses some vitality, perhaps because of a
mea culpa determination to do cultural penance rather than keep faith with the characters.
On this score, Andrew Rothney draws the short straw as Queenie’s predictably racist husband. But that doesn’t stop Gershwyn eustache Jnr lighting up the evening as the ever- optimistic would-be lawyer who’s pressganged into marrying Hortense.
His character triumphs over the worst of Anglo-Saxon miserablism with cheerful generosity and a cheesy sense of humour.
THeshow’s great coup de
theatre, though, comes at the end of the first half when a gigantic sail is unfurled for a life-size projection of the Windrush ship that brought many Caribbeans to our shores.
With Benjamin Kwasi Burrell’s orchestral jazz score, it’s an image that sticks: one part historical indictment; one part hope.
n THe Half God Of Rainfall is a parable of spiritual endurance and cosmic defiance. The writing is a good deal jazzier than Small
Island. Written by Inua ellams (best known for his play The Barber Shop Chronicles), it combines Greek and Nigerian Yoruba myth and started life as an epic poem.
It’s brought to life in Nancy Medina’s impressive production as the tale of a Nigerian woman who’s raped by the God Zeus and gives birth to an Olympic basketball player.
Though ellams’s esoteric story can be hard to follow, his poetry takes wing on Max John’s design, which looks like a cracked phone screen below a simple backdrop that seems to stretch to infinity under Jackie Shemesh’s ethereal lighting.
Tanuja Amarasuriya adds earthly and terrestrial sounds, while Rakie Ayola and Kwami Odoom impress as the mother and son rooting their visionary characters in simple humanity.
Impressive: Leah Harvey (left) as Hortense in Small Island