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Theatre Review: Small Island shows small ambition

The National's staging of Small Island shows a theatre that has now totally lost its way

Leonie Elliott in Small Island at the National Theatre - Windrush (Johan Persson)

Small Island
National Theatre, London, until April 30

Rufus Norris is having a tough time of it as the artistic director of the National Theatre, with his big Christmas production of Manor widely reviled as one of the worst ever staged at his theatre or anywhere else, quite possibly ever. It resulted in a one-star pile-on by the critics of a kind I’ve never seen before. Clearly rattled, Norris invited the critics to a drinks party ahead of the press night for Small Island, but I felt this shouldn’t be about whether he is convivial company or serves good wine, and steered well clear.

That he threw this little soiree ahead of his staging of Small Island shows a theatre that has now totally lost its way. I don’t say it’s not a great production – I said as much the first time I reviewed it two years ago (and I don’t dispute it’s still a five-star production) – but repeating old shows should be what the BBC does, not the National. It is as if the venue has thrown its hands up in the air and said it has lost any interest at all in finding new talent or putting on anything fresh.

What is worse is that this is clearly an extremely expensive production, with a vast cast, an expensive set and myriad special effects, so Norris has committed a significant amount of his yearly budget to a retread, which, it seems to me, amounts to a counsel of despair.

It so happens a great deal is happening in our country and our world right now and it beggars belief that the National Theatre should have absolutely nothing whatsoever to say about it that’s new.

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