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The Wife of Willesden, Kiln Theatre review - a saucy ode to Brent | reviews, news & interviews

The Wife of Willesden, Kiln Theatre review - a saucy ode to Brent

The Wife of Willesden, Kiln Theatre review - a saucy ode to Brent

Zadie Smith's updated Chaucerian tale has a spring in its step and a twinkle in its eye

Rattling along: the cast of 'The Wife of Willesden' Images - Marc Brenner

Zadie Smith might not be the only writer who can rhyme "tandem" with "galdem", but she’s the only one who can do it in an adaptation of Chaucer. In The Wife of Willesden, her debut play, a modern version of one of the Canterbury Tales, Smith’s talent for mixing high and low is at full power.

Indhu Rubasingham’s staging at the Kiln Theatre rattles along with warmth, wit, and a whole lot of heart. The premise is a little flimsy, but forgivably so. Brent has been voted London’s Borough of Culture, and the landlady of the Sir Colin Campbell has organised an open mic night to celebrate. A character called the Author (Crystal Condie, pictured below, looking rather like Smith) laments that there’s no women going up to the mic, only men. And then Alvita (Clare Perkins), the Wife of Willesden, struts onto the pub’s sticky floor. Five husbands down, and she’s showing no sign of stopping.
The cast of 'The Wife of Willesden' at the Kiln TheatreLuckily for those of us who haven’t read the Canterbury Tales, you don’t need to know anything about the Wife of Bath to see that Alvita is a revelation. Funny, sexy, the queen of all she surveys. Perkins is a born storyteller, making Smith’s rhyming couplets sound like the most natural thing in the world. “Colin,” she addresses a hapless husband in search of advice, squeezing more contempt out of two syllables than some other actors can wring out of a whole play.

The Wife of Willesden started out as a 15-minute monologue, and most of the lines are still Alvita’s. In the Prologue, which takes up more than half the 95-minute running time, she narrates her life story, and explains her philosophy of sex, love and marriage. It’s Perkins’ show, really, but her nine castmates, playing 46 characters between them, don’t put a foot wrong, even as they move through Imogen Knight and Celise Hick’s sinuous choreography.

Scott Miller is satisfyingly odious as Alvita’s fifth husband Ryan, a 20-year-old student who worships Jordan Peterson. Marcus Adolphy also stands out as Winston (husband number two), Nelson Mandela and Black Jesus, his halo a golden tray behind his head. The costumes, designed by Robert Jones and Kinnetia Isidore, shift from hoodies and short shorts to what looks like 18th-century carnival gear, as Alvita reaches her actual story: an Arthurian tale of sexual assault and tricksy bargaining, transplanted to colonial Jamaica.

Clare Perkins in 'The Wife of Willesden' at the Kiln TheatreThe pace flags somewhat at this turning point, but Perkins (pictured left) is still narrating, so it’s still delightful. And maybe we should blame Chaucer for the fact that the Prologue is much more fun than the Tale. “Tall or short, black or white,” says Alvita, describing the kind of bloke she’ll sleep with, and is interrupted by a helpful voice noting that that’s in the original. For the most part, Smith puts Chaucer (and herself) aside to let Alvita sing. Sometimes literally – there’s a fair bit of karaoke. It feels like 10 people putting on a show in a pub, in the best way.

The Wife of Willesden is steeped in Brent, so much so that it’s hard to imagine it being produced anywhere but the Kiln. Kilburn High Road is namedropped throughout; the real Sir Colin Campbell (the pub, that is) sits just across the way from the theatre. The multicultural cast (and audience) reflect the diversity of the streets outside: black and white and brown, messing around and telling stories together. Borough of culture indeed.

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