"Windrush Generation" Amnesty Rally

"Windrush Generation" Amnesty Rally

Image by Tim Dennell

Daniel Nelson

Jamaica and Britain: a small island that’s big in the eyes of its Caribbean neighbours, and a big power painfully shrinking to a smaller global role.

The two meet in Small Island, a play based on Andrea Levy’s novel about the Windrush Generation who set sail for the Home Country in 1948 to be met by a victorious, drab, impoverished country that told the visitors No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs

“Home” was hostile (remind you of anything today?) and the play captures the consequent clash of colour and culture by focussing on four characters on the move - Hortense, who wants to escape from her small island, Gilbert who dreams of becoming a lawyer in the bigger island; Queenie, who jumps at a chance to get away from her Lincolnshire farm; and her stiff-upper-lip English racist husband.

Behind them a cast of 40 (including supernumeries – “extras” to non-theatrical folk) help fill in backstories and at times a show biz, almost musical atmosphere for the Jamaican scenes and a tighter, pinched feeling for the London times, with further help from rotating sets, newsreels, giant backcloths and trapdoor exits. It’s expansive, vibrant theatre as befits an adaptation of an epic book and occasionally gets an extra bounce from vocal reactions by Caribbean members of the audience – gasps at dramatic moments and, on the night I was there, a perfectly delivered loud and heartfelt response to Queenie’s line about lack of a baby.

There’s a niggling feeling that the emotionally constipated Englishman, the louche Jamaican, the handsome airman, together with their attitudes and observations, are caricatures. But we are all caricatures of our culture, class and times.

And on race, the piece hits home.

 The prejudice on display in Small Island is not exaggerated one iota,  and leads directly to the shocking dilemma at the end of the play.

But there’s humour and humanity, too. It’s a gripping human story, superbly told and staged, and important history.

As Levy wrote five years ago: “Immigration to Britain since the end of the Second World War has been a final, unexpected gift to Britain from its old empire. The benefits that the labour and the enterprise of immigrants, like those from the Caribbean, have brought to Britain are incalculable. Their ideas, their creativity and their ways of life have helped turn this country into a sophisticated multi-culture.

“But there are still countless young Britons today of Afro-Caribbean descent who have as little understanding their ancestry and have as little evidence of their worth as I did when I was growing up. And there are countless white Britons who are unaware of the histories that bind us all  together. My heritage is Britain’s story too. It is time to put the Caribbean back where it belongs - in the main narrative of British history.”

This play alone cannot achieve that - no single play or book could do so. But Small Island undoubtedly is part of the reckoning, of putting the record straight, as well as being hugely entertaining.

And one might even be permitted a little optimism after the final curtain, because although some people assume Brexit entitles them to voice xenophobia and abuse, Britain’s “mixed race” population was put at 1.3 million in the 2011 census, is the fastest growing ethnic group and may number 2 million today.

So small island does not necessarily mean small minds. 

* Small Island is at the Olivier, National Theatre, Upper Ground, South Bank SE1, until 10 August.  Info: 7452 3000/ https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

+ 14 May, Creating the Music in Small Island ,6.30pm

+ 18 May, Caribbean Women’s Diaspora, 2pm

+ 20 May, The Stuart Hall Project, film screening, 6.30pm

+ 23 May, A New Beacon: Caribbean Artists Movement, 6.30pm

+ 31 May, Actors Leah Harvey and Aisling Loftus, 3pm

+ 11 June, Rufus Norris and Helen Edmundson, , 6pm

+ 17 June, War to Windrush: Black Women in Britain 1939-48, 6pm

+ 27 JuneNational Theatre Live broadcast, selected cinemas: Find your nearest cinema

12 July, A Hole in Babylon – talk on Horace Ove’s work and film screening, 6.30pm

+ 20 July, Standing on the Shoulders: Black Women Actors in the UK from 1950s-1960s, 6.30pm

+ 22 July, Designing Small island with Katrina Lindsay, 6pm

+ 24 July, Familiar Stranger – A Conversation with the Stuart Hall Foundation, 6pm


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