White Teeth at the Kiln Theatre review ****

White Teeth

Kiln Theatre, 21st November 2018

I have never read Zadie Smith’s 2000 debut novel White Teeth. So I have no benchmark against which to set the adaptation by Stephen Sharkey, directed by Indhu Rubasingham, which is still showing at the Kiln. I gather it is something of a sprawling, hyperbolic tale of multi-cultural Britain across three generations beginning at the end of WWII, (though largely set on the doorstep of the Kiln), through the eyes of two, connected families. It is stuffed with plot, event, location, character and is both comic and tragic. 

Well if that is the case then I would say that the creative team here has done it proud. Not quite a musical, yet not entirely a play, there are times when the surreality of the story telling threatens to break the spell, but if you leave your critical eye, and ear, at home, don’t take it too seriously (as it doesn’t itself …),  and just go with with the exuberant flow you should have a great time. This feels and looks like community theatre, about the community in which it is performed, but, as is usually the case when Indhu Rubasingham is pulling the strings, making it look this spontaneous has, I would surmise, require a great deal of thinking, planning and rehearsing over its 5 years gestation. 

It doesn’t sound like the adaptation has been completely faithful to the book, chopping out strands and characters, and recasting the stream of events (as I gather did the 2002 TV adaptation). The story is told through a series of flashbacks from the perspective of millenial Rosie Jones (a droll Amanda Wilkin), the daughter of Irie (the superb, again, Ayesha Antoine), trying to find out about her “complicated” heritage, probably pregnant, in the present day. We still get the ornate intertwining of the Jones family, the bashful Archie (Richard Lumsden), and headstrong Clara (Nenda Neurer) with the Iqbal’s, peppery Samad (Tony Jayawardena) and forthright Alsana (Ayesha Dharker) and their two very different sons, volatile Millat (Assad Zaman) and studious Magid (Sid Sagar). And the posh Jewish-Catholic family up the hill, Marcus Chalfen (Philip Bird), Joyce (Naomi Frederick) and son Josh (Karl Queensborough) but we have assorted friends and colleagues along the way, notably local “character”, doomsayer and sometime deus ex machina, Mad Mary (the wonderful Michele Austin, who dives in with both feet). 

Unlikely suicide attempts, coin flips, parties, age differences, O’Connell’s, the improbable tank crew, a Nazi eugenicist, an inability to pull a trigger, the development of twins, religion, non-observance, affairs, fundamentalism, the worse named ever terror organisation, experiments on mice, the menage a trois, the unlikely denouement, dentistry. All this remains, but, and why not, now amplified with on stage band (Matthew Churcher on drums, Zoe Guest on guitar and Nanda Neurer, yes that’s right she is also playing Clara, on bass), 13 songs from composer Paul Englishby and multiple dance routines. 

Tom Piper’s set is a faithful line drawing, in exaggerated perspective, of the High Road, across which Oliver Fenwick’s lighting, and Lizzie Pocock’s projections, ring the changes. I  marvelled at the intricacy of Polly Bennett’s movement, which plays up the story’s slapstick strengths. With music director Chris Traves, and sound designer Carolyn Downing, this is, make no mistake, an A list creative team.

Is it easy to follow the story? Amazingly, given the activity, yes it is, in part thanks to some light-touch commentary and exposition when needed. Will it make you smile? Yes, unless you are some crotchety Daily Heil reader in which case I would politely us you to p*ss off out of our City. Are the songs a bit too pastiche, musical theatre, by pop culture numbers? Yes but their sly humour means you will forgive. Do some of the myriad of thoughts and ideas that Zadie Smith apparently threw out in her novel, notably the darker sides of the immigrant experience, get a little bit lost, or smothered? Yes I am guessing they do. Are the characters fully realised? No. But then this comes in at under two and a half hours so what do you expect. If you want Chekhov go elsewhere. 

But if you want theatrical story telling at its very best, homegrown magic realism, made by a team that really cares about what it has doing, brimful of energy, and you are proud of the cultural melting pot which is London, then look no further.

I don’t read much but White Teeth has now reserved a place in the summer holiday luggage. 

Napoleon Disrobed at the Arcola Theatre review ****

Jacques-Louis_David_-_Napoleon_Crossing_the_Alps_-_Kunsthistorisches_Museum

Napoleon Disrobed

Arcola Theatre, 7th March 2018

Here is JL David’s preposterously heroic painting of Napoleon Bonaparte Crossing the Alps. The Napoleon of Simon Ley’s alternative history The Death of Napoleon, is of a somewhat different hue. Ley’s novella, his real name was Pierre Ryckmans and he was a Belgian academic specialist based in Australia, imagines NB is smuggled out of St Helena, returns to Paris via Antwerp, and attempts to hook up with the faithful in order to mount a comeback. It all ends rather more prosaically.

This novella forms the basis for this play-ful diversion from Told By An Idiot. co-produced by Theatre Royal Plymouth. Told By An Idiot exists to put the fun into theatre so it is easy to see why this story, about an extraordinary man rendered ordinary and having to deal with the consequences, attracted them. When I say them I mean two gifted Hunters: Paul Hunter co-founder and driving force behind TBAI, and here our Napoleon, and director Kathryn Hunter, theatre’s acting chameleon, last seen in the Emperor at the Young Vic.

The final, and, for me, most valuable contribution however, came from Ayesha Antoine, who plays … everybody else, including Ostrich, the young woman who proves NB’s salvation. The play kicks off with some gentle, and very funny, Napoleon related banter with the audience from Paul Hunter. We cut to the escape from St Helena, NB masquerading as Eugene Lenormand, brought to life with a few well chosen props, the first of a dizzying number of costume changes from Ms Antoine, and the unpinioning of Michael Vale’s raised platform set to create the swelling sea. Sight gags, aural interruptions, wordplay and anachronisms a plenty, take us energetically through NB’s missed meeting with the Bonapartistes in Bordeaux, his train journey from Antwerp and his rendezvous with widow, single mum and melon shop owner Ostrich. The tone then shifts from the affectionately comic to the comically tender as NB abandons his ambitions and his destiny, his double on St Helena having pegged it early, to settle down with Ostrich, whoever she might be.

This is a piece that revels in the artifice and wonder of theatre which delivers more than you might expect or deserve. It might not quite deliver the contemplations on identity and freedom that the director might have imagined, is NB really who he says he is?, but you would have to be a serious miserabilist not to be won over by this. Plainly I am not as miserable as I think I am.