Full disclosure: to me Zadie Smith’s first novel White Teeth is a national treasure brushing shoulders with the Countdown theme song and Naomi Campbell. I knew that no adaptation would ever quite live up to my expectations, and kept an open mind when watching Channel 4’s 2002 attempt many years ago. Smith’s book is sprawling and filled with multiple storylines, shifts in times, and attempts to chronicle over three generations of history spread across two central families the Iqbals and the Joneses. Any attempt at adapting it is courageous, and the decision to premiere it in Kilburn, the area where the book is set, is one that radiated confidence in its artistic decisions. My mind was open, but when the disco lights shone down on a luminous Clara (Nenda Neurer) sauntering down the stairs, and she opened her mouth to reveal a perfect set of white teeth, I knew I was not getting the adaptation of my dreams.
Stephen Sharkey’s adaptation of White Teeth is a play with music by Paul Englishby. Sharkey’s adaptation chooses to frame the multi-generational story through the lens of Irie’s dentist daughter’s comatose quest for her family history and knowledge of her own paternity. This is facilitated by Mad Mary (Michele Austin), who unbeknownst to everyone on the High Road, has had magical powers all along and has chosen to deploy them in this very specific way. This framing of the story allows the recreation of the book’s sometimes sarcastic omniscient narrative voice, whose lines are often deployed verbatim. It also unfortunately dissipates any hope that Josh Chalfen and Irie would actually end up together. The focus on paternity however, and the very narrow notion of identity that the play seems to centre on, simplifies the piece for ease of storytelling at the expense of White Teeth’s magic. The songs, while entertaining, are not memorable and at times feel unnecessary.
Tom Piper beautifully recreates the High Street which seems towering and endless. Sharkey’s adaptation seemingly likens the backdrop of multicultural London, but strikingly refuses to truly engage with the discomfort of the melting pot process for those born here and those who have immigrated here. This is highlighted by the omission of Clara’s story and other key incidents such as Magid’s desire to be called Mark, and an old man’s denial of Samad’s wartime service and use of a racial slur. Clara’s omission is baffling given the creation of Irie’s daughter’s character (Amanda Wilkin) specifically for the play, and the too long set up to establish her role in its action. Clara’s transformation from demure Jehovah’s witness to disco goddess and escape from the stern hand of her ultra-religious mother is central to the play’s themes of integration and immigration. Her lack of back story means that the humour in her duet with Archie is somewhat lost, as well as the mediocrity of their marriage.
Similarly, Irie’s quest for “flickability” i.e. straight European hair so she can get the attention of Millat, loses some of its potency because Irie’s discomfort with her Jamaican features is not a key part of her coming of age story. The audience never sees her ridiculous red weave, or the pep talk she receives from the underutilised “niece of shame”. Instead the scene features an entertaining song, with a hilarious recreation of a black hair salon this feels like more of a nod to the book that focuses on the humour of the situation but none of the substance.
That being said, White Teeth is cast to perfection. Nearly all the pieces are there: the holy trinity of Magid (Sid Sagar), Millat (Assad Zaman) and Irie (Ayesha Antoine) who are the embodiment of north London realness. Ayesha Dharker’s Alsana has the same ferocity and no-nonsense wisdom despite having a reduced role. Joyce (Naomi Frederick) and Marcus (Philip Bird) Chalfen have the same smugness, but their fetishisation of the Iqbal brothers is muted. And Samad (Tony Jayawardena) and Archie (Richard Lumsden) remain forever clueless.
What’s missing are those little moments of questioning. Questioning one’s self and others to establish a sense of your own identity within this great melting pot. The book expertly captures those with gems like Alsana’s trainers under her Sari, Samad’s anger at Magid’s atheism, and Archie’s boss’s attempt to rescind his picnic invitation. Within the book these events seem like random tangents ripe for the cutting block, but they work together to create a multi-facetted exploration of London identity, which is complex. Without these bits, much of White Teeth seems like a fun tribute to the play while lacking some of its much-needed context.
White Teeth is playing at Kiln Theatre until 22 December 2018. For more information and tickets, click here.