White Teeth at Kiln Theatre, London – review round-up
White Teeth is sacred ground for some. Zadie Smith’s debut novel, published 18 years ago now, is arguably the best British novel of the 21st century so far – a rollicking, riotous and time-hopping tale of family and friendship among the immigrant populations of NW6. Only a fool would attempt to translate it for the stage, surely?
But that’s exactly what writer Stephen Sharkey and director Indhu Rubasingham have done. After a long gestation, and with Smith’s blessing, their adaptation runs at Kilburn’s freshly re-opened Kiln Theatre until Christmas.
You can’t say it’s not appropriate: the theatre, like the novel, is a cherished part of North-West London’s heritage. It’s really playing to a home crowd here – part of the story actually takes place on the street outside.
But how well do Sharkey and Rubasingham condense Smith’s stunning story for the stage? Can they cram 500-odd pages of prose into one play? What do the critics make of this ambitious attempt to rework a modern classic for the theatre?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews
White Teeth – An impossible task
The big one, then: does this theatrical version of Smith’s story stand up? Or was it always doomed to fail?
“Adapting Zadie Smith’s phenomenal novel for the stage is like trying to harness a whirlwind,” writes Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★). “Stephen Sharkey’s stage version, with songs by Paul Englishby, captures something of the book’s buoyancy but inevitably feels as if it is trying to squeeze a whole narrative flood into a pint pot.”
Most critics agree that Sharkey has simply bitten off more than he – or anyone – can chew. “In packing everything in, inevitably the fine detail, and so the bigger purposes of the novel, are lost,” observes Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★). “Nor does the adaptation get away with the outrageous and convoluted plot in the same way the book does.”
“Approached as a species of upmarket panto, the show works, but amid the theatrical heave-ho something of the book’s era-grappling seriousness gets lost,” chimes Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★), while Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★) reckons this adaptation “misses both the original’s bite and its memorably sure grasp of London’s breadth and depth.”
Some critics are really annoyed about it. Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★) argues that Sharkey has turned a “subtle, vivid comic novel” into “a broadbrush cartoon” and Ann Treneman (Times, ★★) asserts that “there needs to be more bite.”
“The show is never quite sure what it wants to be,” opines Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★). “Is it a play? Is it a musical? Is it a revue?”
It does have its fans, though. Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★) calls it a “lively, light-footed adaptation” and praises Sharkey for making “some bold decisions that pay off with a freshness you might not have expected”, while Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★★) reckons its “sufficient that the thematic plates are kept deftly spinning.”
But most agree with Matt Trueman (Variety). “With a massive amount of story to plough through, Sharkey plonks the bones of its plot onto a bare stage and his script skims, skit to skit, like a speed-read synopsis,” he writes. “It leaves little room for anything but cut-out characters, let alone cultural or historical specificity — the details that make White Teeth so convincing.”
White Teeth – Chaotic Kilburn
The transition from page to stage isn’t a particularly successful one then. But what about Rubasingham’s production? Is it as joyously fun to watch as the novel is to read?
The show definitely scores higher here, Shenton admiring its “spirited sense of infectious energy”, Alice Saville (Time Out, ★★★) praising its “stomping energy”, and Bano insisting that whatever its failings, it’s still “big, colourful, joyful and silly.”
“Lovingly reduced, it makes for a pacy production,” Bano continues. “Rubasingham’s direction gives it a constant sense of forward motion, and the production itself never falters. It’s never uninteresting.”
What most critics can’t forgive, though, is the addition of songs, courtesy of Paul Englishby. They’re “naff” according to Bano, “perky yet largely forgettable” according to Hitchings, and add nothing more than “a superficial joviality” according to Crompton.
“Englishby’s bland, forgettable score bears a lot of blame,” writes Trueman. “Every song overflows with pop-musical muchness, all thinly arranged for a threadbare house band and mostly meekly sung. There’s a vague sense of shifting eras, as old-school variety numbers give way to synth bangers, but no effort to blend the global sounds that the story suggests.”
“Englishby’s songs are almost entirely extraneous to the story,” adds Saville. “They don’t drive the narrative on, and sometimes they hardly reference it, like the naff second act number that basically exists to list a lot of things the audience might remember about the ’80s. Nor do they summon up the cultures that White Teeth draws on, those of Jamaica, Bangladesh, and the North London ‘melting pot’ that Smith digs around in and critiques.”
White Teeth – From page to stage
The show is still fun then, despite the shortcomings of Sharkey’s script and the strange inclusion of Englishby’s songs. What about the 14-strong ensemble cast? Can they conjure up the vividness and vitality of Smith’s characters?
“A strong multi-roling cast bustles around,” describes Bano. “The most memorable is Michele Austin’s mysterious, slightly vicious Mary, a mercurial presence chock full of unpredictable delivery and sly shifts in and out of different characters. Assad Zaman and Sid Sagar are also great as twins Millat and Magid, identically mannered at first and then diverging as they grow up.”
It’s Austin’s Mary that is mentioned most. She’s “scene-stealing” according to Aleks Sierz (Arts Desk, ★★★), “cherishable” according to Cavendish, and “brilliantly sly” according to Taylor.
Tony Jayawardena and Richard Lumsden are also widely praised as Samad and Archie – two veterans, fathers and friends – “a great double act,” says Saville – as is Ayesha Antoine’s Irie – “winning and gutsy” according to Patrick Marmion (Daily Mail).
For Crompton, though, the “absolutely superb” cast can’t hide this adaptation’s awkwardness. They “give it their all and bring to the production infinitely more light and shade and pure enjoyment value than it really deserves,” she concludes.
White Teeth – Is it any good?
Well, it’s not exactly bad, but it’s a long way from great, too. Most critics award this first stage adaptation of Smith’s novel three-stars. The cast is great, and Rubasingham’s production is always fun, but Sharkey’s script misses the scope and the sensitivity of its source material. And it was a bad, bad idea to stick some songs in, apparently.
The book ultimately got the better of them, is the general consensus. Which is forgiveable. It’s a staggering, sprawling work of genius. It would probably get the better of anybody.
We need your help…
When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.
The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.
We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.
Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.