This sprawling, engrossing narrative is the sort of play the National Theatre does so well. Based on Andrea Levy’s acclaimed novel, and expertly adapted into a three-hour epic by Helen Edmundson, Rufus Norris’ production has the sweep and feel of classic theatre. Originally produced in 2019, it’s a story of historical racism and Jamaican immigrants in post-war Britain, and it’s surely no coincidence it was chosen to stream this week because it feels as contemporary and relevant as today.
It begins in 1940s Jamaica during a hurricane where young black school-teacher Hortense (a marvelously proud Leah Harvey) becomes the narrator as she tells us the story of her life, and how she was sent away to live with a wealthier family and became friends with their indulged son Michael.
Before love can blossom, he enlists in the RAF as a pilot. A spectacularly condensed introduction to the Second World War follows, which gives the cast of 40 a chance to jitterbug, jive and dodge bombs to background images of Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson crooning on the BBC.
We then move to pre-war Lincolnshire and meet the redoubtable, and white Englishwoman, Queenie (Aisling Loftus at her most touching), daughter of a pig-farmer and his wife. She ends up escaping the farm drudgery to London, and to maintain her independence, swiftly marries banker Bernard (Arthur Rothney). When he also enlists, Queenie takes in boarders to make ends meet. One of them, Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr), another Jamaican, who she knew earlier in the war, returns to Jamaica, marries the stitched up Hortense, and returns to the reality of a Britain that’s been radically changed by immigration and racism.
Hortense has idolized the ‘mother country’ from afar, and when she arrives the dream is shattered and she is appalled at having to live in one spartan tiny room with Gilbert with one bowl used for cooking, washing clothes, and nightly urine collection. And when a war-damaged Bernard returns from the partitioned India, and begins his offensive racial attack on the couple living in his house, it’s scarily real.
The performances are supremely excellent. Leah Harvey’s Hortense is a mixture of stoic hope and heartbreak, Aisling Loftus brings salt-of-the-earth working-class depth to Queenie, whilst Gershwyn Austache Jnr as Gilbert masks resentment at being denied self-fulfilment with a hollow cheerfulness. Andrew Rothney’s stiff-upper-lipped Bernard manages the character’s swing from passive to stridently aggressive astutely.
Jon Driscoll’s full-stage projections from cyclone-ravaged Jamaica, to London and the Blitz, to the Windrush liner leaving port, are richly archival and with a soundscape that captures the era, this is the National Theatre in robust, storytelling mode.