There must have been a reason why this didn’t open the newly done up Kiln Theatre in September. Parts of Zadie Smith’s acclaimed debut novel are literally set on the road outside the theatre and the book sprawlingly depicts the NW postcode in all its many-peopled glory.
There’s a cartoonish quality to the stage adaptation, signalled by Tom Piper’s similarly cartoonish design of Kilburn High Road fading into the distance.
Indhu Rubasingham’s production has music too, a bunch of slight songs adding to the heightened feel. But, rather than making the commentary more acute, too often they come across as naff. Stephen Sharkey’s adaptation would have worked better without them. Because though the plot is silly and the characters absurd, this hot mess has serious points to make about big things, like family, religion, tradition.
While the meat of the show is essentially the same as Smith’s novel, Sharkey has also added a big framing device set in the present day. Mad Mary, a “local fruit and nut job” who spends her life parading Shoot-up Hill and shouting at passers by, stabs dentist Rose (not in the book) with a syringe full of Novocain, then guides her through a coma-dream to reveal the story of her parents and grandparents. Rose remains onstage with Mary throughout, watching the story unfold.
A strong multi-roling cast bustles around. 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.
From 480 pages of subplots and supernumeraries, Sharkey has scraped the book back to essentials. Lovingly reduced, it makes for a pacy production. Rubasingham’s direction gives it a constant sense of forward motion, and the production itself never falters. It’s never uninteresting.
The adaptation is totally at home in NW and its evocation of the area is undeniable. There are rarely fewer than four accents onstage at any time. It covers a lot of the area’s history too; in the first half hour alone it jumps from 2018 to 1993 to 1975 to 1945.
But in packing everything in inevitably the fine detail, and so the bigger purposes of the novel, are lost. Sometimes they’re sacrificed for things that are just a lot less effective – like those trite songs, or really old-hat ‘rewind’ segments which see the cast jerk backwards in time. Nor does the adaptation get away with the outrageous and convoluted plot – the Nazi doctor and the business with the mouse, for example – in the same way the book does.
In an attempt to maintain pace and tell story, it sort of loses a sense of purpose besides existing, here, now, in Kilburn. It relies on the aptness of its setting. That said, it’s still enjoyable – big, colourful, joyful and silly, capably adapted and playfully staged.