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White Teeth, Kiln Theatre
© Mark Douet Ayesha Antoine (Irie Jones)

How the hell do you stage ‘White Teeth’?

Zadie Smith’s sprawling novel about the bustling immigrant communities of Kilburn is the great London book of our time: Kiln Theatre is bringing it to the stage – with songs!

By Andrzej Lukowski
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THE AMBITION

Liverpool-born playwright Stephen Sharkey has lived in London since 1992, and his wife grew up near Kilburn. A few years back, around the time of the Olympics, he was ‘looking for a London story’ to adapt. He had also just read Zadie Smith’s ‘White Teeth’ and fallen in love with it. As you do, he decided to write to Smith to ask if he could make a stage version.

THE PERMISSION

Sharkey didn’t hear anything for ages, and more or less forgot about it all, until months later: ‘I got a call saying Ms Smith had provisionally given me permission to adapt it.’ She has remained at a total remove, though she’s been kept updated by her agent. Sharkey’s impression is that she has mixed feelings about the book now, but is curious to see what other people can do with it.

THE THEATRE

Kilburn mainstay the Tricycle Theatre – recently redubbed the Kiln Theatre – actually features in ‘White Teeth’, and seemed like the perfect fit: Sharkey reckons they would have tried to adapt the book years ago if anybody working there had had the gall to actually ask Smith, which he admits he partly did out of ‘naivety’. He met up with its boss Indhu Rubasingham – who is also directing ‘White Teeth’ – in 2013. It’s taken five years to get to the stage.

THE ADAPTATION

‘White Teeth’ is a sprawlingly massive book heaving with characters from north-west London’s vibrant immigrant communities and their spiralling backstories. Sharkey has framed it as a sort of history play, with the unnamed girl born in the epilogue now a grown-up learning about ‘the crazy history of the Iqbals and the Joneses’. Enormous amounts of stuff has inevitably been hacked out for a version that Sharkey describes as ‘loyal but not faithful’ to the novel. He’s chosen to foreground the character of
Irie Jones and her relations with the twins Magid and Millat.

THE SONGS

Somewhere along the line, songs (by Paul Englishby) were added. ‘I was just asking myself the other day: Where did these songs come from?’ muses Sharkey. ‘I looked back through my emails and it seems Indhu suggested we should have a big opening number, then a closing number, and so on. Now there are 13 original songs – it’s kind of halfway to being the M-word.’

THE SUCCESS?

‘White Teeth’ the book was an enormous hit, and it’s not unreasonable to think that the Kiln is hoping for a big, possibly West End transfer smash with this, the first ever stage adaptation of Smith’s work. After five years, though, Sharkey says he can’t think about any of that, he just wants people to see it here. ‘It’s something big and ballsy about the High Road, on the High Road, that celebrates the crazy mess of London life’

‘White Teeth’ is at Kiln Theatre. Until Dec 22.

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