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London Theater Review: ‘White Teeth’

A busy, blurry musical adaptation of Zadie Smith's breakout novel plays like a speed-read synopsis.

With:
Ayesha Antoine, Michele Austin, Philip Bird, Matthew Churcher, Ayesha Dharker, Naomi Frederick, Tony Jayawardena, Richard Lumsden, Nenda Neurer, Karl Queensborough, Sid Sagar, Zoe West, Amanda Wilkin, Assad Zaman.

The Kilburn High Road carves a line through north London. Turkish grills, Irish pubs and Indian grocers jostle with jerk shops, pizzerias and a political theater — formerly the Tricycle, newly rechristened the Kiln Theatre. That new name, still subject to protests, reflects the melting pot of local culture, and Zadie Smith’s debut novel “White Teeth,” set on its doorstep, did just the same. But for all writer Stephen Sharkey’s chipper musical adaptation, now premiering at the Kiln, still celebrates and interrogates London’s multiculturalism, it nonetheless dilutes the “multi-culti stew” on show. This is “White Teeth,” whitened: an artificial smile.

Published in 2000, “White Teeth” shot the 25-year-old Smith to literary stardom. It spanned a century and traced the branches of two family trees: the Irish-Jamaican roots of Kilburn-born Irie Jones, and the ancestry of British-Bengali twin brothers Millat and Magid Iqbal. Their fathers became friends fighting in World War II, their forebears stretched out across the British empire, Victorian plantation owners and Indian mutineers. Smith’s novel celebrated the chaos of the gene pool against the control of genetic engineering, then a topical concern, and framed both history in general and empire in particular as a massive cultural collider that bumped lovers together, blending ethnicities and blurring customs.

It’s a local story, and Sharkey’s adaptation makes the neighborhood itself a protagonist. He adds a contemporary frame: Amanda Wilkin’s newly pregnant dentist Rosie is stabbed in surgery with an anesthetic shot by a disturbed local named Mad Mary, Queen of the High Road. Her three-day comatose trip becomes an ancestral spirit walk with Michelle Austin’s Mary, who in the novel is a striking but peripheral figure preaching the end of days, as her shamanistic guide, steering Rosie through time, revealing her tangled roots and the question mark over her father’s identity.

It’s a structure that shows history as an eternal present. Mother and daughter, Irie and Rosie, meet each other as contemporaries and, rather sweetly, retrace their ancestry together, dropping in on Irie’s parents’ first kiss and their own youthful mistakes. As Irie relives her own teenage crush on the two Iqbal boys next door, every event lays the foundations for a future that’s already come to pass, no matter how coincidental or misguided. “We are creatures of consequence,” as Mary wisely intones, but as BBC weathercaster Michael Fish reassures the nation in 1987 that there’s no storm incoming, Sharkey suggests we’re all caught up in the hurricane of history.

That gale force, for example, sends Magid Iqbal back to Bangladesh to become a model student, while his brother Millat slides from teenage rebellion to militant Islam at home. Their belligerent father, played with a light huff byTony Jayawardena, slips into English customs and frets about the erasure of his own heritage. Smith’s story remains a keen examination of cultural identity in flux, the way ethnicities melt and merge together.

Yet “White Teeth” suffers the same fate onstage. 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, darting from suicide attempts to squat parties, bombed-out French churches to family rooms where the entire 1980s unfolds on TV. The TARDIS-style time-hop ups the tumult of a turning world, but it leaves little room for anything but cut-out characters, let alone cultural or historical specificity — the details that make “White Teeth” so convincing.

Instead Kilburn’s “flotsam and jetsam” are reduced to stock ethnic cameos — irritable Arab publicans, campy Afro hairdressers and scoffing well-to-do north London Jews — and while director Indhu Rubasingham’s staging makes a song and dance about the Kilburn High Road itself, there’s little real sense of time or place in Polly Bennett’s lively choreography. Tom Piper’s design lays the street out like an old archive photo, suggesting the area’s color comes from the people pounding its pavements, the life in its midst, and Lizzie Pocock’s trippy projections splash black-and-white brickwork with vibrant tie-dye swirls as time trips back and forth. But played in front of a blue-sky cyclorama, it’s all a bit blank.

Composer Paul Englishby’s bland, forgettable score bears a lot of blame too. 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. What’s missing reveals as much as what’s there — and Sharkey leaves a lot out himself, notably cutting the earliest generations of Smith’s novel. It’s a massive, startling excision that largely cuts empirical history out of the story of post-war immigration and refuses to acknowledge the colonial roots of the multiculturalism it celebrates. “White Teeth,” just whiter and rather toothless.

London Theater Review: 'White Teeth'

Kiln Theatre, London; 235 seats; £32.50, $43 top. Opened, Nov. 6, 2018. Reviewed Nov 5. Running time: 2 HOURS 5 MINUTES.

Production: A Kiln Theatre Productions production of a play in two acts by Stephen Sharkey adapted from a novel by Zadie Smith.

Creative: Directed by Indhu Rubasingham; Design, Tom Piper; lighting, Oliver Fenwick; composer, Paul Englishby; sound, Carolyn Downing; movement, Polly Bennett; musical director, Chris Traves; projection, Catherine Woodhouse.

Cast: Ayesha Antoine, Michele Austin, Philip Bird, Matthew Churcher, Ayesha Dharker, Naomi Frederick, Tony Jayawardena, Richard Lumsden, Nenda Neurer, Karl Queensborough, Sid Sagar, Zoe West, Amanda Wilkin, Assad Zaman.

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