Helen Edmundson’s Small Island is a great play, and the National Theatre production of it makes for a great evening of theatre. I would not go so far as to say it’s ten-out-of-ten, see-it-before-you-die stuff — but it’s captivating, it’s a story, it’s beautiful, it’s tragic, and above all, it’ll make you feel. In this numb world of ours, shouldn’t that be enough?
The stage upon entry is bizarrely similar to the projected set I designed for my own show, Global Warming: The Musical — waves crashing on the floor of the stage (accompanied by sound effects) and a projection of a horizon at sunrise above. It’s a mood-setting, aesthetically-pleasing design, and it keeps the space open for all of the many sets which will occupy it over the course of the next three hours and ten minutes (which, much to this play’s credit, never feel as long as those numbers might imply). The audience, though less full than the one for Follies just a few weeks ago, is peopled by a younger and more diverse crowd. This makes sense when you examine the simple fact that this is a new play (whereas Follies is from the 1970s) and that this is a play with any non-white people in it (whereas Follies included but one black woman). The audience, as any who takes advantage of the Disney-World-for-Theatre-People space offered by the National Theatre beforehand, is primed for a fantastic show.
The first twenty minutes of the play do not deliver on this front. I’ve been thinking hard about this: do I just not like the beginnings of plays? (my classmate, says “You’re just not accustomed to the world of it yet.”) Or are playwrights just not very adept at writing beginnings? I’m not sure… what I do know is that Mrs. Rider, the archetypal white lady of the opening scene, is acting with such camp that she might as well have been found in the final segment of Follies, butchering (lacking a more apt word) stupid lines like “This calls for lipstick!” The audience is supposed to empathize with Hortense, one of our three protagonists, as a result of the bizarre nature of Mrs. Rider, but I, at least, could not, as she was so far from reality that it became nonsensical. When the two child actors come out (in part, it seems, to reenact the old-self-young-self directorial conceit of Follies, which again happened only three weeks ago), it becomes frighteningly possible that no one in this show will be able to act. And I don’t necessarily fault the kids for this; it’s not their fault that they haven’t the skills to project or to emote in a believable way. I fault the director for not saying “Now wait just one second: these kids are rubbish!” The weird projections behind them (looking surprisingly cheap for the National Theatre) only emphasize a feeling of initial laziness and inconsistency which had me facepalming before scene two even began.
Things start to pick up once they slap Hortense, a clobbering which looks and feels real as can be. Hurricane noises which follow are well-executed (God bless professional sound designers, and, in spite of an absurd plot twist that Michael (Hortense’s childhood sweetheart) is engaged in relations with Mrs. Rider, we move onto the second scene with some more momentum than the show had gathered by the twenty-minute mark. There’s also some random gospel music, which, though completely atonal, is pleasant to listen to. Scene two opens with some actors rising comedically from the trap door beneath the stage, and once our next protagonist, Queenie, and her husband begin speaking, it becomes clear that we’re in for a better show that initially presented. Queenie’s aunt is acting with the same blindness as the children and as Mrs. Rider, but Queenie and Bernard seem like real people in a real world with what just so happens to be incredible comedic timing. The projections begin to be properly utilized once Queenie speaks of “the pictures” and, in real time, the pictures play out the love she’s describing right behind her. It makes one think, “Oh, that’s why they needed the projections.” That’s one thing I could never say about the company, a cast which clocks in at about 40 people. Yes, 40 people. Though I support casting and paying as many actors as possible, I fear these people were cast just to fill space — certainly they were not all cast because they’re talented.
The funniest theatrical joke I think I’ve ever seen: Queenie says to the audience of her impending engagement, “In the end, it was tragedy that brought things to a head.” And her aunt, who has been chewing away on some coconut candies upstage, suddenly gets the light, chokes, and slowly sinks into the trap door. It was a joke so well-executed that it got its own round of applause. This grabbed the audience for the whole of act one — and it provided a stunning contrast to the most visceral theatrical experience I’ve ever had, which followed only a few minutes later. We are introduced to Bernard’s father, Arthur, a man for whom it is impossible to have anything other than empathy and love. He walks with such meager sweetness around the stage, such an infant-like lack of direction, that the audience nearly “awwws” each time they see him. It is mentioned briefly that he suffers from shell shock, but we forget this darker component of his personality because we are so in love with how darn cute he is. Yes, it’s all a big love-fest — until the sirens of World War II begin to sound, and Arthur begins to convulse. To convulse and convulse. It’s horrible: and in the United Kingdom, they don’t shy away from that. The sirens louder and louder,the dialogue between Bernard and Queenie angrier and angrier, Arthur in seemingly more and more pain — and then the BOOM of bombs falling on the roof. Suddenly, thirty or so shirts fall from the ceiling as the lights flash blindingly. Immediately — and I mean, immediately — I began to weep. And weep. And weep. As did many people in the Circle surrounding me; though none of us had been around for the Second World War (and it is unlikely that any of us had been truly around for any war, really), we all felt this moment with the sincerity and power of something that had personally affected each of us. That’s good theatre. That’s fantastic f***ing theatre.
This play consistently blends the emotions and tones it gives the audience incredibly well, going from high comedy to Arthur’s death to a musical number to romance as if it were all part of the same ocean projected on the screen behind the cast. The flow of the action is similarly masterful, and I, King of Falling Asleep during Good Shows, was never even on the verge of lethargy. The play finds itself by the end of act one as something visually stunning, emotionally moving, and theatrically captivating. Everyone there wanted to stay for act two, and rightly so.
The second act, though perhaps less aesthetically intricate than the first, makes clear just how complex these characters and their stories (pulled from the original 1948 novel by Andrea Levy) truly are. Every argument is interesting and significant because every person is coming from a real place, and no character is a spotless hero-martyr-savior type. In this way, heavy issues of race and gender can be explored in a way that never feels as preachy or low-bar as My Right Left Foot, and the action never grows stale. Gilbert, Queenie, Hortense, and even Bernard are likeable in their own ways, each of them necessary to the trajectory of the story. I do think this could be a seven person cast with just those four, Michael, and a male and female ensemble, as they carry the story more than anything else. I didn’t take many notes during act two, I’d imagine, because, as interesting as the dialogue was and the plot proved to be, the pull was in the characters. They drew us in expertly in the first act and in so doing demanded that we stay for the second. It’s excellent storytelling, and it’s further excellent from the perspective of keeping butts in seats for your show.
I could see this show doing well on Broadway, and I can certainly see it raking in some awards. It could use some cleaning up — and perhaps some aesthetic clarification — but, as Dr. Essin said at interval, “It’s a perfect evening of theatre.” That it is. That it is.