It's impossible to watch Small Island without feeling sad that Andrea Levy, on whose influential and much-loved book this adaptation is based, died of cancer at the age of 62 just before rehearsals began. Yet adaptor Helen Edmundson and director Rufus Norris have honoured her intentions wonderfully in this all-encompassing and absorbing production.
They precisely catch the balance in the book between the scale and scope of Levy's concerns about the treatment of Britain's black citizens from Jamaica and the West Indies, who served the motherland faithfully in the Second World War and were rewarded for their pains with contempt, and the sheer velocity of her story-telling.
This is a show that shoots arrows of empathy and engagement out towards its audience and they respond; there were gasps of shock at the commonplace racism of post-war English lives. But there was also total involvement in the narrative and the lives depicted.
The long first act (the entire show runs at over 3 hours which is marginally too long) is magical. With flair and fluidity, it introduces us to the characters one by one: Hortense, the prissy girl who wants to please and who loves her clever cousin Michael; Gilbert, dashing and clever, who wants to be a lawyer and joins the RAF rather than fighting for Jamaican independence because he believes it is the best chance of a better life; Queenie, escaping the grim realities of a farm in Lincolnshire by marrying Bernard, whose uptight diffidence conceals a troubled, ugly soul.
The scenes change rapidly, from the sun of Jamaica to the grim horizons of England, with the help of Jon Driscoll's projections on the huge curved screen of designer Katrina Lindsay's set, as Paul Anderson's lighting evocatively changes the mood. Norris' direction is breathtakingly assured, with shots of humour – a character vanishing through a trap in the stage when she dies – enlivening the staging. The characters are dwarfed by the historical and scenic backdrops, but they also become part of them. When the Windrush appears, the ship that brought so many Jamaicans to England, a tableau on the dockside awaits her arrival and then blends into the image as people embark.
The characters talk to us, involve us in their choices. Queenie (a sprightly, bold Aisling Loftus) confides over her shoulder that her chilly courtship by Bernard "doesn't feel right". Gilbert tells us that Queenie's homemade pie is "the first thing I've eaten in England that doesn't look as if it had been eaten once before". As he says the words, Gershwyn Eustache Jnr makes it impossible to resist Gilbert's magnetism; he lets us know what this man is thinking and feeling at every second, his disappointments and hopes flashing across his face like shadows. It is the contrast between what he makes you feel and how he is treated that makes Gilbert's story so moving.
Leah Harvey as the prissy Hortense is equally convincing. This is a character who is hard to like, harder to love, but Harvey always manages to suggest her dignity, her admirable desire to win for herself the golden life she has been promised because her skin is light – and her tenacity in carrying on when those dreams are dashed.
When the characters come together in London, taking a room in Queenie's house, the production slows down a bit. The darker mood, the genuine horror of the racism that rejects them, is compounded by a fixed set and the fact that their narrative complicity vanishes. But by this point it doesn't matter; they have won us over, bound us to their hearts. Levy's plot is terrific and it holds us in its grip. The ending is both deeply moving and profoundly shaming, a challenge to all small islands to open their minds and their human sympathy. From a novel dealing with the past, Norris, Edmundson and Levy have given us a play for today.