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White Teeth: Kiln Theatre

December 19, 2018

(seen at the evening performance on 27th November 2018)

Zadie Smith’s tale of growing up in Kilburn, North London is a modern classic. Spanning decades from World War Two to 1992, it’s a complex story following immigrant families across generations.

Rather like “Les Misérables,” there are plenty of difficult choices for any adaptor to make. Stephen Sharkey does a pretty decent job of cutting surplus characters and focussing on the story of a dentist Rosie Jones (Amanda Wilkin on sound observational form) put into a coma by one of her patients and questing to find her true parentage.

It does take too long to set-up that scenario, partly down to the insertion of musical numbers. Music was apparently incidental in early drafts, but developed into the “musical” (inverted commas intended) it is now. Not really enough of it, and nothing much constructed to drive the story forward either – though a number about the 1980s is fun and adds to the atmosphere.

A choreographer being beyond the budget, reliance on a movement director (Polly Bennett) is insufficient to stage the numbers, mostly resulting in some oddly shuffling crowd movement rather than anything expressing or interpreting the text satisfactorily.

It’s a bit of a meander to the finish line too, the drama of the final scene not really coming into focus, though the epilogue is acceptable. Between, it’s a mixture. On a functional (photograph of Kilburn High Road in 3D) set by Tom Piper, Indhu Rubasingham evokes with some success local atmosphere of the place over the years.

Mad Mary (Michele Austin) is our hostess with the er, shopping-trolley on wheels. Hostile at first, but friends by the end. As time-keeper, she scrolls us forward and back through the years, highlighting revelations. Occasionally indistinct, but dominating and eventually winning.

Irie Jones (Aysha Antoine) is the catalyst, her path requiring a range of ages that she effects with more depth than the script sometimes allows.

Best pairing is Archie Jones (Richard Lumsden) and Samad Iqbal (Tony Jayawardena). Their meeting and future are a mixture of comedy and pathos, both actors handling their scenes with light touches that lend utmost reality.

There’s strong work from Joyce and Marcus Chalfen (Naomi Frederick / Philip Bird) too – instantly recognisable as “West Hampstead.” Both undertake other roles, with Frederick a seductive teacher and moral guardian – difficult to do, but this is an adaptable actor – and Bird a chilling Nazi geneticist.

Pairing Magid and Millat Iqbal (Sid Sagar / Assad Zaman) is another good idea, with a lovely moment early on as the twins have their futures speculated about by their future mother. Later, Zaman brings a brooding menace and Sagar a cool assurance; both demonstrating quite an emotional range.

Alsana Iqbal (Ayesha Dharker) is a notable stage presence. While her character isn’t permitted by the plot requirements to be at the fore, her impact is disproportionately effective.

Similar can be said of Josh Chalfen (Karl Queensborough) with a neat characterisation.

To control these main characters and stories is difficult, and it is to Sharkey’s credit that despite the odd flat moment the audience invest for much of the time. There are some truly horrible gaps in his research “Year 3, Year 6” didn’t exist in the 1970s, nor did “Booty Call” mean anything in 1992, and there are a few other loud clangers for those who remember, well “The Clangers” really.

Given that this had lengthy development to get this far, I’m not sure spending more time on it would be worthwhile. Unless planning to reform it fully as a musical – in which case more plot and certainly a little more humour could be used – the exploration is proven here that the book is just about stageable.

Uneven, but well-performed and holds the attention for the most part.

 

3 stars.

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