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STAGE REVIEW: White Teeth

The cast of White Teeth at the Kiln Theatre. Photo: Mark Douet. - Credit: Archant

Tim Walker gives five stars to this heartfelt cry for tolerance.

The one thing that Indhu Rubasingham, the brilliant artistic director of the Kiln Theatre, has always got is the big picture. It’s all very well to keep obsessing about the refurbishment and the new branding she’s put in place at the venue – both of which I heartily welcome – but what ultimately matters is that she has something to say to her audiences.​

I can think of few, if any, theatres in the capital that have grasped the sheer scale of the challenge our society now faces in quite the way that the Kiln has. Theatre should never just be about entertainment, but also education and sometimes it has to be in the business of protest. Some things you just can’t say politely: you have to shout.

After opening her new season with Holy Sh!t – Alexis Zegerman’s study of cultural and religious division in suburbia – Miss Rubasingham is back with her latest production, pressing home the same message that there is more that should unite us than divide us.​ The first ever stage production of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth – adapted by Stephen Sharkey and set of course in Miss Rubasingham’s ‘hood – is a celebration of multiculturalism and difference, but also of unifying British values such as tolerance, compromise and muddling through.

That it has taken 18 years for anyone to pluck up the courage to even attempt to adapt Miss Smith’s much-loved 480-page book is not surprising as it is, on the face of it, unstageable. The story switches, after all, between the years 1945 and 1999 and it is seen through multiple pairs of eyes. ​

As tall an order as it is, Miss Rubasingham delivers. She manages to communicate the essential spirit of the piece: her show is a riot of colour, movement and music and indeed life, all played out on Tom Piper’s apparently never-ending vision of north London’s streets. The original book is a sprawling epic that focuses on the later lives of two wartime friends—the Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal (Tony Jayawardena) and the English Archie Jones (Richard Lumsden)—and their families in London.

Shrewdly, Mr Sharkey recognises that all good adaptations are to a large extent about economy of effort. He doesn’t try to do everything that the book does, but focuses on the individual stories of the relationships that are formed between members of the indigenous population and those from the formerly colonised countries in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.​

He picks on a relatively minor character in the book, a north London vagrant called Mad Mary (Michele Austin, playing the part as a real force of nature) and gives her an over-arching narrator role to link the various elements and make some sense of it all.​ It is performed by a predominantly young and intelligent cast who make the most of different roles and situations. Sid Sagar and Assad Zaman stand out as Muslim twins whose approach to their faith defines them in starkly different ways. This is breath-taking, remarkable, unforgettable theatre that speaks with eloquence and passion to our times.

White Teeth will be at Kiln Theatre, London, until December 22.