Zadie Smith, adapted by Stephen Sharkey
Some novels are so rich and detailed that is hard to imagine how they can be translated to the stage without losing the elements that made them special in the first place.
With its ability to recreate a period and place perfectly, at the same time as shining a light on wider society, White Teeth, which became an instant classic on publication almost 20 years ago, would seem to fall squarely into that category.
Given that Zadie Smith’s award-winning novel was set in Kilburn and its environs, there is a pleasing symmetry about presenting this new play with songs at the Kiln, given that the theatre is located on the Kilburn High Road which becomes an integral part of the drama, not to mention the inspiration behind one of composer Paul Englishby’s catchiest songs.
In order to create a satisfying stage production, Stephen Sharkey’s adaptation moves quite a long way from the original but always attempts to retain its spirit.
Set in 2018 rather than at the turn of the millennium, it starts when dentist Rosie Jones, played by Amanda Wilkin, comes up against a formidable patient in the form of Michelle Austin’s Mad Mary armed with a potentially fatal syringe. The potent intoxicant sends Rosie into a coma and a three-day nightmare rollercoaster ride through her own ancestry.
Through much of the evening, the drive and narration come from Mad Mary, seemingly one of Zadie Smith’s most eccentric but lovable creations. However, those who frequented this part of north west London in the period under scrutiny will have indelible memories of a West Indian lady with a dress sense that proudly incorporated bin bags and a whisk that may well have had mystical powers, at least in her own mind.
Once into the nightmare, the 2¾-hour-long production largely becomes a quest for Rosie’s elusive father. In order to get there, we head as far back in time as 1945 when a couple of likely lads served together in the army, one her grandfather Archie (Richard Lumsden), the other Samad Iqbal (Tony Jayawardena), a Bengali who would subsequently become his best friend and a neighbour.
Stepping backwards and forwards in time with alacrity, the evening follows the fortunes of both families. Coincidentally, Iqbal’s wife Alsana (Ayesha Dharker) gave birth at the Royal Free almost simultaneously with Clara Jones (Nenda Neurer), the former to a pair of twins (played by Sid Sagar and Asad Zaman) whose physical likeness belies personalities as different as chalk and cheese.
These likely lads grow up alongside Rosie’s future mum, Ayesha Antoine in the role of Irie, before being divided by Samad’s desire that at least one of the lads should get a proper Muslim upbringing at home in Bangladesh.
One of the joys of the novel and, to a rather lesser extent given the time constraints, the theatrical version is the way in which the lives of this ethnically diverse group from the melting pot that is Kilburn are put into the context of British, subcontinental and wider events.
While this production, directed by Indhu Rubasingham, is no substitute for reading or re-reading one of the finest novels published in the last 20 years, it presents a satisfying mixture of comedy and something rather deeper, taking on amongst other issues race relations, Muslim fundamentalism and the debate between science and religion. In doing so, it is consistently entertaining and makes the most of a stream of unexpected twists and turns.