Zadie Smith has never lacked scope. Her debut novel told the story of three families, two generations, and over fifty years of history, culture, and mixing. White Teeth was a critical and commercial hit when it was first published at the dawn of the 21st Century – an epic story of finding one’s identity, one’s home, and one’s place in North-West London. Set in Kilburn, an adaptation of White Teeth made perfect sense for the local theatre, Indhu Rubasingham’s newly refurbished Kiln. The question is, how to go about about doing it?
If you are the creative team behind White Teeth the answer is even more scope. Director Rubasingham and adapter Stephen Sharkey have taken not one but two leaps with the material. The first was to add another generation to the story, bringing its time-frame up to the present day. The second was to adapt the work by way of that most perilous of crucibles – the stage musical. Given the length and complexity of White Teeth, these decisions made me curious, if a little apprehensive. Having seen the show, I cannot imagine doing it any other way.
White Teeth introduces Rosie Jones, daughter of Irie, and granddaughter of Archie and Clara, the white British and black Caribbean couple around which the novel is originally based. The addition of Rosie makes White Teeth relevant to 2018, but it also enables a clever framing device for a narrative that crosses both time and perspective to tell its story. Due to an unfortunate incident at the beginning of the play, Rosie is in a coma. She watches events that led to her conception with the help of Mad Mary, who serves as both narrator and Greek chorus in a joyous yet poignant rendition of Smith’s novel.
From its opening number, White Teeth establishes itself as a celebration. We see the very street upon which the Kiln resides, Kilburn High Road, brought to life by a colourful cast of characters. You might pass them on your way to school, to work, to the shops. You might even know them. Musicals, as with any form of drama, require audiences to believe in the worlds they portray, and White Teeth is no different. The play not only achieves this end, but does so with a palpable, irresistible sense of fun. This is Kilburn, only turned up to 11.
Singing, dancing, and acting their way through this labyrinth of mixed-up identities and tangled love-lives is a superb ensemble. This multi-talented cast (some even double up as musicians) all produce fine performances, but special credit is owed to Tony Jayawardena as the hilariously pompous Samad Iqbal, Ayesha Dharker as his long-suffering wife Alsana, Ayesha Antoine as Irie, the beating heart of the piece, and of course, Michele Austin as Mad Mary, who commands the stage with cane waved and teeth kissed.
One of the downsides of White Teeth is that, except for its opener, the tunes are not particularly memorable. Adapting large sections of characterisation for snappy musical numbers is not an easy task, and White Teeth is often better at telling its story through drama, rather than music. In this regard, the production often seems less of a musical and more of a play with music, which may disappoint enthusiasts for the form.
White Teeth is nevertheless an excellent work and a warm welcome to the Kiln. Rubasingham and company have crafted a play that buzzes with life, love, and location. White Teeth is a mission statement for the theatre, showcasing a venue that represents its community while throwing open its arms to newcomers. The Kiln has a bright future, and I can’t wait to go back.