Review: White Teeth at the Kiln Theatre

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?

The cast of White Teeth. Photo courtesy of the Kiln Theatre (2018).

The cast of White Teeth. Photo courtesy of the Kiln Theatre (2018).

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.

Ayesha Antoine as Irie Jones and Richard Lumsden as Archie Jones. Photo courtesy of the Kiln Theatre (2018).

Ayesha Antoine as Irie Jones and Richard Lumsden as Archie Jones. Photo courtesy of the Kiln Theatre (2018).

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.

Michele Austin as Mad Mary. Photo courtesy of the Kiln Theatre (2018).

Michele Austin as Mad Mary. Photo courtesy of the Kiln Theatre (2018).

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.

Review: Legacy at Rich Mix

Fireworks at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London (2012). Photo courtesy of EPA.

Fireworks at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London (2012). Photo courtesy of EPA.

You remember the Olympic ceremony, right? That glorious display of British history and culture, that celebration of a modern country both welcoming and diverse? How times have changed, the commentators still say. Whatever happened to Britain, they ask, whatever happened to our sense of community? They forget that communities have been under attack well before the torch was lit. For the residents of the local area, the Olympics were not the start of the problems, but they did advance their impact.

Legacy explores what happened. While the Olympic games brought the promise of uplift to an area long under-served, under-funded, and under-represented, this uplift would not be for the benefit of the community, but rather private interests. Developers moved in, and the tenants, some of whom were life-long residents of the area, were forced out. Sound familiar?

The word ‘important’ gets thrown around a lot these days, and usually by lazy writers determined to reduce all art to political grandstanding. So, I want to be very clear when I say that Legacy is important, not only for what it says but what it represents – the real stories of people fighting against the erasure of their lives, homes, and communities. Get angry. It happened. It’s still happening.

Legacy is a powerful yet touching reminder of the importance of community and fighting back. A work of careful and compassionate research, the play was work-shopped and developed with local residents, and draws upon the real-life story of Mary Finch, a 75-year old fighting to save her home from private development.

Naturally, there is a lot of anger in the piece, but most importantly heart. Written by Susan Avery and Sally Grey, the script blends both the comic and the tragic. Legacy avoids easy stereotypes of working-class people, presenting a community of individuals with their own qualities and quirks, and all, in some way, compromised and galvanised by the threat of ‘regeneration’ in the name of private investment.

Photo courtesy of Blueprint Theatre (2018).

Photo courtesy of Blueprint Theatre (2018).

The performances are uniformly excellent. From the steely determination of Marian (Shenagh Govan), the warm-hearted generosity of Jackie (Sally Grey), the campy silliness of Jason (Adam Elms), to the wonderfully sleazy Richie (Nick Khan), the characters are immediately recognisable. These could be our family, friends, neighbours, hairdressers, shop-keepers, neighbourhood police and, well, landlords.

Special mention should also be paid to Katie Males who turns in a stunning and nuanced performance as Leah. Charming, forthright yet ultimately vulnerable, Leah ends up leading a movement but, just like all of us, is not invincible to cruelty and stress. Similarly, Jacqui Mackenzie Gray also deserves credit for her icily villainous portrayal of media personalities, misrepresenting the facts and destroying people’s lives, and all through cut-glass vowels and perfect teeth.   

From a directorial standpoint, Legacy is significant for its combination of the socially real and the fantastically surreal. Under the smart direction of Tracy Ryan and Debbie Fitzgerald, the play moves between Marian’s cosy living room to Jackie’s nightmarish hallucinations, all of which lead to a thrillingly bizarre conclusion aided by the superlative efforts of the technical team, made up of designer Ruth Sutcliffe and lighting and sound designers George Bach and Patrick Ball, respectively.

Mock-up of what the regeneration of Newham could look like, courtesy of the Newham Council website (2018).

Mock-up of what the regeneration of Newham could look like, courtesy of the Newham Council website (2018).

The sad reality of Legacy is that its story has continued relevancy, not only for the present moment but for years to come. Stories like Mary’s are not uncommon in London, nor indeed the rest of the United Kingdom, and Legacy not only draws attention to what’s going on but makes a compelling case to hold government, local and national, to account.

Legacy explores the tragic consequences of community versus capital. The play blends the political and the personal in a way that never preaches nor patronises, but rather presents the very real impact that money-making schemes, ordered in the name of ‘regeneration’, can have on the lives of ordinary working people.

Legacy deserves just that. I hope that more people will get an opportunity to see this play, to learn from its story, and to be moved to confront the injustices faced by Mary Finch and the rest of her community. The legacy of the Olympic games may not have all been positive, but hopefully in this instance, they might provide motivation to do better – for our communities, for local people, and for Britain.

More information about Blueprint Theatre can be found here.