Mixing it up

Rating: 4

White Teeth

by Ian Shuttleworth

it’s not often, even on opening nights, that you see a crowd outside the theatre on kilburn high road. Was the premiere of this stage adaptation of Zadie smith’s 2000 debut novel White teeth that big a deal? actually, no: the group outside were protesting against the theatre, founded in 1980, being renamed from the tricycle to the kiln.

but the show ought to be a big deal. smith’s book is set in the multicultural society of north-west london, and stephen sharkey’s adaptation moves the  action right to the theatre’s doorstep in the high road. it grapples with the complications of melting-pot culture, coming down in favour without pretending everything’s rosy.

the book is a blaring jumble of voices in a whole gamut of linguistic, social and emotional registers, and at first the stage version threatens to teeter over into a shouty muddle. as actors strain to be heard over each other and the band, it comes close to a hollering competition until the process of what sharkey called ‘affectionately filleting’ the novel gets into gear.

it focuses half a century of narrative, from the last days of the second World War until the 1990s, involving two interlinked families – one of bengali muslim heritage, one mixed english/ Caribbean – by using a flashback structure in which the comatose rosie Jones is taken through past episodes leading to her own conception as the link between the Jones and iqbal families.

although rosie is the catalyst of the saga, its protagonist is her mother irie, played by the ever-admirable ayesha antoine. other standouts include michele austin as mad mary, a kind of commère for the proceedings, and tony Jayawardena and atesha dharker as samad and alsana iqbal.

the story explores matters of individual and national identity, social integration and distinction, science and religion, and a host of other issues. there’s a motif of experiments on twins, from the nazi era to samad iqbal sending one of his twin sons to be raised in bangladesh, where he becomes an anglophile scientist, while the other grows up in kilburn, obsessed first with rap and then with islamism. there’s no polished thesis to be presented; it’s enough to keep the thematic plates deftly spinning.

Paul englishby’s score gleefully plunders the 1980s and, to its credit, even distinguishes between subgenres of rap. however, i couldn’t help feeling that it settles too often into a pop/rock groove at odds with the diversity of the dramatic fabric... i’m trying to avoid saying that it sometimes feels too white. but i suppose that’s just one more ingredient in the rich mix.

Until 22 December at the Kiln Theatre, London NW6: 020-7328 1000, www.kilntheatre.com