Theatre Review: White Teeth

This adaptation of Zadie Smith's novel lacks bite, says John Nathan


For the denizens of north London, Zadie Smith’s debut novel of 2000 is local literature. It has landmarks that include Kilburn, Cricklewood and Baker Street.

But the book’s achievement is in combining this familiar setting with a narrative sweep that embraces London’s cultures and three generations of family going back to the grandfathers of Smith’s heroine, dentist Rosie Jones.

Played in this new adaptation by the likeable Amanda Wilkin, Rosie finds that she is pregnant and is soon plunged into a coma by Caribbean Mad Mary, the shaman of Kilburn High Road, who stabs Rosie in the groin with a needle full of anaesthetic.

It is in this state of unconscious hallucination that Rosie searches back in time for the identity of her father, which Irie (Ayesha Antoine), her single-parent mother has never divulged.

Accompanied by Mad Mary like a sort of Dickensian Ghost of Secrets Past, they regress back through the ’80s and ’70s, to Rosie’s grandfathers at the end of the Second World War.

Tank-driver Archie and wireless operator Samad, a Muslim Bengal Lancer were in the Balkans when they took into custody a French Nazi doctor who experimented on children in Auschwitz. But most of the flashback action centres on Rosie’s mum when she was a schoolgirl in the 1980s. And it’s here that modern London, its tensions and vibrancy, begins to emerge. Such is Smith’s sweep.

Yet Stephen Sharkey’s adaptation of the 542-page novel fails to match this ambition. Indhu Rubasingham’s production has an earthy, street feel as it swooshes its way through time. And Michele Austin’s Mad Mary is the pick of some good performances.

But Paul Englishby’s score is too ordinary to justify the musical interludes, and although I’d never want to choose recorded music over live, in this case tracks from the various periods in which this show is set would have been a lot more evocative.

The result feels a bit like a local show for local people, which of course is a perfectly fine thing to be. But Smith’s novel deserves something deeper, more profound and more moving.

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