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The Theatreguide.London Review

White Teeth
Kiln Theatre   Autumn-Winter 2018

Zadie Smith's first novel is brought to vibrant theatrical life by Stephen Sharkey as a celebration of the diversity, unpredictability and general messiness of life on the same Kilburn High Street that is the Kiln Theatre's own location. 

The novelist and the playwright, along with director Indhu Rubasingham and composer Paul Englishby, create a celebration of what cultural diversity really means with the forward momentum of a mystery novel, the high energy of a Broadway musical and a carefully jigsawed structure that gives the pleasing illusion of randomness and disorder. 

Attacked by the local crazy street lady Mad Mary, dentist Rosie Jones goes into a coma, in which she dreams that Mary takes her on a journey through her family's and her community's complicated history to uncover mysteries of her own past and identity.

She learns of her Irish, Bangladeshi and African roots and the truth behind various family myths and secrets, all through a string of flashbacks and flashbacks-within-flashbacks driven by the method-in-her-madness of Mary's seemingly random storytelling. 

And every episode is punctuated by music and dance, with the ironic Music Hall flavour of Joan Littlewood's Oh What A Lovely War, though with a range of musical styles appropriate to the various periods – the 1980s, for example, are encapsulated in a mock-up of a Madonna video.

(Other inescapable echoes are of Back To The Future, with a time-travelling child observing his parents in their youth and, in a subplot about twin boys separated and brought up differently so they become estranged, of Willy Russell's Blood Brothers.) 

Rosie does eventually learn some important things (like who her father was) while understanding that some questions in life are too complicated to be easily answered (like who her father was). Oh, and – spoiler alert - Rosie does come out of her coma with a richer appreciation of her mother and her heritage. 

Without any overt lecturing or preaching, the novel and adaptation let us realise for ourselves that just about every character is an immigrant or child of immigrants, and that the cultural metaphor of the Melting Pot is inaccurate. 

It is not that every immigrant group eventually becomes blended into an anodyne Britishness, but that the concept of Britishness changes each time to incorporate the new flavours. 

Director Indhu Rubasingham and 'movement director' (i.e. choreographer) Polly Bennett keep things moving and repeatedly fill the stage with inventive and surprising images, as when the adult Rosie finds herself watching and being exasperated by her mother as a teenager. 

Amanda Wilkin as Rosie, Ayesha Antoine as her mother and Michele Austin as Mary carry much of the narrative and emotional weight with sensitivity, supported by a large and multi-talented cast, many of them playing multiple roles. 

Lest I make White Teeth sound like good-for-you didactic drama, let me reiterate that it is one of the most inventive, involving and simply entertaining new shows in London today, a lively, clever, frequently very funny celebration of life and sheer theatricality.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - White Teeth - Kiln Theatre 2018

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