Preview: White Teeth at the Kiln Theatre, Kilburn

Naomi Frederick, Amanda Wilkin, Karl Queensborough, Richard Lumsden, Tony Jayawardena and Sid Sagar

Naomi Frederick, Amanda Wilkin, Karl Queensborough, Richard Lumsden, Tony Jayawardena and Sid Sagar in rehearsals for White Teeth at the Kiln Theatre.. Photo by Mark Douet - Credit: Photo by Mark Douet

Stephen Sharkey adapts Zadie Smith’s famously sprawling Willesden-set novel for the stage

He’s wrestled writers from Dickens to Dostoyevsky from the page to the stage - now playwright Stephen Sharkey is sinking his teeth into White Teeth.

The Stoke Newington writer is seeing his adaptation of Zadie Smith’s 18-year-old novel staged at The Kiln Theatre, in the borough where it’s set.

“When I heard she had given me permission to adapt it, I was thrilled, then terrified,” he says.

“I realised I have got to do this, where do I start?”.

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Sharkey, who adds that apart from sending Smith drafts “she’s been very hands off” updates her famously sprawling Willesden-set novel to 2018, with a cast of 14, a dozen songs, and a live band.

“It’s hard to put the extraordinary busy character of White Teeth on stage, we didn’t’ set out to write a musical version but we realised that songs would help to tell the story. The novel is very multi-phonic in lots of different voices and keys, the action and characters are big, bold and larger than life and songs help to achieve this effect on stage.”

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Sharkey, who has previously adapted both The Old Curiosity Shop and Euripides’ Ion for the stage, was searching for a ‘London story’ when he read Smith’s novel, which entwines the lives of three multi-racial Willesden families.

“I have lived here for more than 20 years and never written a play about London,” he says.

“I fell in love with this extraordinary cast of characters, the way she captures the essence of the beautiful ugliness of London, how everyone is rubbing up against each other and influencing each other and how we’re all stuck together in a happily volatile mix of cultures and histories.”

Smith, who grew up in Willesden and went to Hampstead School, has since been asked about multi-culturalism and whether it’s failed.

“But she was writing about what she knew,” says Sharkey. “She said that was the London I lived in I didn’t know any other kind of community.”

Sharkey found it refreshing that Smith puts working class protagonists “front and centre” in the story of old friends Archie Jones who is married to Jamaican Clara, and Bangladeshi curry house waiter Samad Iqbal, who has an arranged marriage but is having an affair with his son’s white music teacher.

But if the TV adaptation foregrounded the male characters, including Samad’s twin sons Magid and Millat, one who rejects his Muslim relgion the other who embraces a radical version of it, Sharkey’s features the close mother daughter bond between Archie’s mixed race daughter Irie and the daughter she gives birth to.

“While I thought the TV adaptation was terrific I have focused on different things,” he says. “The heart of it is still the key friendship between the two dads but (director) Indhu Rubasingham said we need a reason to tell this story now. Our production is set now and foregrounds the relationship betwee Irie and her now 25-year-old daughter Rosie.

“It’s also very funny, people often forget what a brilliant comic writer Smith is.

The adaptation process he says involves a lot of “filleting and editing”.

“It’s no good trying to put everything in, as I put it to Ms Smith when I wrote to her, there’s a loyalty rather than a faithfulness to the spirit and personality of the book.

He adds: “If you read Dickens and compare London to now, it has changed unrecognisably and yet it’s exactly the same,

“Charles Dickens would be completely at home in our London. Smith is akin to Dickens in the way she captures the city as a personality, she’s really interested in the personality of place, how the environment, history and vibrations of place affect our lives and relationships.

“I hope this is a celebration of London life, how people live cheek by jowl for good or ill, and the possibilities and randomness of the place that make London life constantly surprising with never a dull moment.”

White Teeth runs at The Kiln Theatre from October 26 to December 22.

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