On the press night of White Teeth, there’s a candlelit vigil on Kilburn High Road. To get into the theatre, you first have to pass through a throng of polite, serious-faced people who have gathered to lament the death of the Tricycle Theatre and protest its rebirth as the Kiln. In some ways it’s a fitting start for a play about what makes a community, and what divides it. White Teeth is all about how people from different backgrounds manage to, more or less, rub along together; and about how that more or less functioning community can be split by disagreements that can seem trivial to one, and profound to another.
Zadie Smith’s novel is a big, sprawling book, and Stephen Sharkey has pulled off an impressive feat in getting this plot onstage in a way that’s clear. The play kicks off in the present day with Rosie Jones (Amanda Wilkin) being sent into a coma when Kilburn High Road’s presiding queen, the eccentric old Mad Mary, stabs her in the leg with a dental anaesthetic. It was a little bit of an unsettling beginning, and I didn’t love that the play’s inciting incident was an assault by a mentally ill homeless woman played for comic relief. But it sets up a pretty effective framing device for what follows: Mad Mary leading Rosie and her mother Irie back in time, Ghost of Christmas Past-style, to answer for once and all the question of who is Rosie’s father. In the process we get a bit of mother-daughter bonding and a deep dive into the intertwined family histories of the Jones and Iqbal families, their roots spread out across England, Jamaica and Bangladesh, and their trunk gathered together in NW1. As the play jumps from World War II France to the rule of Indira Gandhi to the fall of the Berlin wall, this framing absolutely works to keep the many disparate plots and subplots together.
The cast are all great. Michele Austin is brilliant as Mad Mary, one minute jumping into a scene to shout dark apocalyptic warnings, the next transforming into a posh concerned Hampstead mum chairing a PTA meeting. And I loved Tony Jayawardena’s Samad Iqbal, teetering on the edge between dignity and pomposity, never quite able to be taken as seriously as he takes himself. The songs are pretty decent too, although the only one to stick around in my head the next day was the opening paean to the Kilburn High Road which namechecks the pub over the road.
Basically, it’s really good fun. It’s funny and intelligent, with nice music and great performances. It tells a complex story in two and a half hours without getting boring or confusing. It touches on some big ideas about how families and communities are both shaped by which parts of our heritage we choose to remember or forget, and the conflicts that occur when people make different decisions about that. And it does so without losing its fundamental good-naturedness. I came out with a smile on my face. The protestors had all gone. And it was hard not to think that, given a bit of time, they’ll probably find a way to make their peace with the theatre.
White Teeth is on at Kiln Theatre till 22nd December. More info here.