AN INTIMATE EPIC IN A FADING EMPIRE
Hard to overstate what an absolute treat this is , and on how many levels. It is a terrific yarn, both romantic and tough, about history and Empire and sex and frustration, escape and hope and love and racism: about promises turned to dross and the great seas of misunderstanding that roll between people. It reminds us how distant Commonwealth citizens dreamed of a magical Westminster castle of welcome and prosperity, and how a mean tired grey nation did not know yet how to treasure them.
Andrea Levy’s novel of four families – here concentrated on three in Helen Edmundson’s admirably clear adaptation – is staged by director Rufus Norris and designer Katrina Lindsay in surges, silhouettes, still-life freezes and fluent eloquent interactions on both sides of the Atlantic. The fast-moving, elegant ensemble-work keeps it arresting, and Lindsay and the movement and projection teams fill the Olivier as few productions manage : without clutter , agoraphobia or overstatement. Entertaining pop-ups are doors and windows and furniture, but also neat tiny cameos of the sweet shop , the cinema, and a pig-slaughtering shed complete with carcass exuberantly eviscerated as poor Queenie, daughter of the Lincolnshire soil, flinches in bored disgust and plans escape. The odd pop-down too:Aunt Dot’s demise is splendid.
In Jamaica, equally bored Hortense too dreams of escape, evoking her childhood as a blessedly “golden”-coloured child (O that terrible hierarchy of skin shade, still troubling) and remembering her calf-love for her cousin: the war brings the two communities into contact, interweaving then recoiling. Sometimes there is a diorama breadth of projected sea , hurricane or shimmering postwar Piccadilly glamour, sometimes narrower clips of film. Dramatically, wartime newsreel is a counterpoint to a squalid cinema brawl between the famously racist American GIs and RAF sergeant Gilbert from Jamaica who stands his ground with “No Jim Crow here!”. Most beautifully, the vast Empire Windrush itself ends act 1 not projected on solidity like the rest, but onto a vast white sheet, which billows and shimmers like the mirage it proved, for many, to be.
You may know the Andrea Levy novel, and the dramatic events which bring together Leah Harvey’s splendidly prim, correct Jamaican Hortense and Aisling Loftus’ freer but frustrated white Queenie in Earl’s Court who woos, tolerates then grieves -mistakenly – her stick of a husband (Andrew Rothney) who returns from policing the Partition of India with a horror of dark skins. If you don’t know the book it doesn’t matter, indeed it might be even better to come to the story fresh. Because it is such a fine one, and one which we need to be re-told as the Windrush generation grow old and lately are so misused. Gerschwyn Eustache Jnr as a cheerful Gilbert, making the most of his squalid bedsit, is a particular delight, But so are they all. Pure and thoughtful pleasure.
box office nationaltheatre.org.uk to 13 August
and will be almost as damn good on screen – NT LIVE – 27 June.