An adaptation of “White Teeth” shows how Britain has changed

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A NEW stage adaptation of Zadie Smith’s debut novel, the first in fact, begins on Kilburn High Road. Like the city itself, this London neighbourhood is defined by successive waves of immigration. Strip-lit groceries selling plantain and tamarind rub shoulders with Halal butchers and Irish pubs. On a wet November evening, the familiar late-night London scents of fried chicken and kebab mix with shisha smoke. Happily, the Kiln Theatre is spared the cost of special effects to conjure the smells and sounds of the High Road, because it is located halfway down it. This is an unusual kind of immersive theatre: in effect the production begins at the moment the audience arrives at the Tube station.

Ms Smith’s novel is deeply rooted in this area and the road itself (originally a Roman route from St Albans to Canterbury), so Indhu Rubasingham’s production has the feel of a homecoming. Published in January 2000 when Ms Smith was 23 years old, “White Teeth” epitomised a self-deprecating sort of millennial hopefulness. The London it depicted in its epic, serio-comic sprawl was post-racial, post-imperial, a “melting pot where nothing’s actually melted. It’s all just kinda stuck together at the bottom in a gooey mess”. One reviewer wrote that “it makes racism appear not only ugly and stupid but ludicrously out of date”. 

Since then, much has changed. In Brexit Britain and beyond, race and identity have returned as fiercely relevant political forces (if they ever really went away). Kilburn, too, has undergone a transformation of its own. Now, the area’s migrant residents hail from other parts of London, pushed out by higher rent.

The Kiln itself is part of this shift. Formerly known as the Tricycle, the theatre is fresh from a £5.5m ($7.15m) re-brand that ditched ramshackle homeliness in favour of slick, faintly corporate hipsterism. Alongside unashamedly expensive drinks, the new bar serves charcuterie boards and a selection of gourmet sausage rolls to an overwhelmingly white, middle-class audience. As a result, the stakes of the production are strangely high: has the multi-cultural optimism of “White Teeth” survived in the 18 years since its publication? Or is this adaptation merely a Blair-era nostalgia trip for precisely the sort of comfortable north-London liberals that the book pillories? 

The two families at the heart of “White Teeth” are not from neighbouring boroughs, but from Jamaica and Bangladesh. Their three-way culture clash is matched by the eccentricity of the fiendishly complex plot, which traces the families from the second world war to the present day via 1970s squat parties and 1980s protests. Stephen Sharkey’s script handles the chaos by framing it in a flashback sequence, as experienced by Rosie Jones (Amanda Wilkin), daughter of protagonist Irie (Ayesha Antoine). Rosie’s visions are presided over by Mad Mary (Michele Austin), a local drifter and amateur mystic who spouts garbled pronouncements about “revelation” and the “multi-culti muddle”.

Rosie’s journey through the strata of her family history is driven by her desire to find out about her absent father, who turns out to be one (or the other) of the Iqbal twins, separated in childhood when one of them was sent back to Bangladesh. That twin returns years later to work on a scientifically groundbreaking, but morally dubious, genetics project called “FutureMouse” at a research institute founded by a Nazi scientist; that scientist was himself ham-fistedly released by Rosie’s grandfather during the war. Little wonder that James Wood, a literary critic, coined the term “hysterical realism” to describe “White Teeth”.

Rather than fighting against the colour and mayhem of the novel, Mr Rubasingham’s staging ratchets them up into hallucinogenic technicolour. Original musical numbers by Paul Englishby situate the drama in the 1940s and 1980s with bopping jazz and banging hip-hop, respectively. The whirling plot is punctuated by affectionate send-ups of multicultural Britishness. In one scene, a Parent Teacher Association vehemently debates whether to cancel the school’s “pagan” harvest festival, squeezed as the calendar already is by Diwali, Ramadan and Yom Kippur. The biggest laughs were drawn by the Chalfens (Philip Bird and Naomi Frederick), the Cambridge-educated, chattering-class intellectuals who take one of the Iqbal twins under their wing in a cringeworthy attempt at charity.

Even if the baroque complexity and Dumas-like coincidences of the plot are admirably managed, there is nevertheless a sense that some important depth is lost in the transition from page to stage. Ms Wilkin and Ms Antoine manage some authentic moments of mother-daughter connection in Rose and Irie’s quieter scenes. Mad Mary’s ramblings take on a vatic significance amid the sound and fury. On the whole, however, the feel-good pandemonium does little to alleviate a creeping sense of naïvety and nostalgia. Bringing this production to the Kiln was a well-conceived idea, and its jazz-hands and showtunes are appropriate for the post-racial promise of the dawning millennium. In a bitterly divided Britain, though, “White Teeth” reminds us of just how much has changed.

“White Teeth” is showing at the Kiln Theatre until December 22nd

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