A magnificent work of art: Small Island reviewed

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A review by Lloyd Evans for The Spectator. Our thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.

Small Island, based on Andrea Levy’s novel about Jamaican migrants in Britain, feels like the world’s longest book review. We meet Hortense, a priggish school teacher, and her cool, handsome boyfriend who survive on a pittance in the Caribbean. Then we skip back to Hortense’s childhood in a house dominated by a bullying preacher who forbids conversations at mealtime. Then we cross the Atlantic to Lincolnshire and meet a chirpy blonde, Queenie, whose auntie runs a sweetie shop. Does Queenie want a job selling sweeties? Yes, says Queenie to her auntie. All this takes ages, and it feels like a deadly earnest sociology lecture.

Then a stiff young bank clerk enters the shop and asks Queenie if she’d like to go for a walk. And the show takes off. Their awkwardly platonic romance is hilarious, and although it’s exaggerated for comic effect it’s not untruthful. In the 1940s it was possible for partners to marry without having touched each other (‘You may kiss the bride’ — the first contact in some cases).

Another blessing arrives in the form of Gilbert, a charming, waggish Jamaican airman who believes that his RAF uniform will make him irresistible to women. The charismatic Gershwyn Eustache Jnr plays Gilbert’s sexual swagger with a hint of fun and self-mockery. Cary Grant did the same thing. In England, Gilbert’s dreams of studying law evaporate and he becomes a postman. But he’s not cowed. He retains his bullish optimism even when reduced to a poky bedsit with a gas meter under the sink that sucks the shillings from his pocket.

High-minded Hortense, now his bride, arrives from Jamaica and her grand entrance leads to another hilarious scene. Hortense assumes that the bedsit is a sort of ante-chamber to a much larger property. She asks to be taken on a tour of the premises. But it’s just a bedsit. And the bathroom is located in the basement several flights below. In a single second, Hortense’s dream of a princely future in England collapses. The show has lots of heart as well as a keen sense of hilarity and the story’s finale, concerning the fate of an unwanted mixed-race baby, is agonising and uplifting to watch.

This is a magnificent work of art, a moving and brilliantly detailed tapestry of England in the early post-war years. (But don’t worry if you miss the first half-hour.)


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