Photo credit: The Wife of Willesden (Photo by Marc Brenner)

'The Wife of Willesden' review — Zadie Smith's lively theatrical debut is a love letter to her home

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

When Brent won its bid to be the London Borough of Culture 2020, novelist Zadie Smith was asked to write something for her beloved district. After a period of panic, she alighted on a fun premise: a modern-day riff on The Wife of Bath from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. It was originally intended as a short monologue, but, one misinterpreted press release later, instead became her first play - Kilburn represented in playful rhyming couplets.

Some of that authorial whirlwind makes it into the finished product, with Smith herself popping up as a frazzled, apologetic character in a brief framing device. I would have loved to have seen more of that, as it supports the play's questions about who can and should tell stories, how we frame our world, and which voices ring out the loudest.

Traditionally, Smith notes wryly, it's men who assume their stories are the ones worth hearing. But it's women who run the show here, and one in particular: the Jamaican-born Alvita (a phenomenal Clare Perkins), whose boozy, brazen, confrontational, sex-positive, and frequently hilarious narrative takes centre stage. It's also a smart transposition of Chaucer's text, finding a modern-day equivalent for various characters (the Friar becomes a Nigerian pastor, the Summoner a Polish bailiff), and in some cases showing how dishearteningly close we still are to the problems of his age.

Alvita is here to school us on love and marriage. She's had five husbands and, though candid about her own faults, is ruthless in her critique of them, comparing their abilities to respect her, please her sexually, and grant her freedom. Why, she demands, should Bob Marley be allowed multiple lovers, but women like her are slut-shamed? She spars with her religious auntie (a typically excellent Ellen Thomas), arguing that the Bible offers advice rather than laws. This is all served up in a disarming mix of patois and north-west London slang, representing the area's cultural melting pot, and with the supporting cast ably covering multiple roles.

The latter part of the show shifts into the tale: an Arthurian legend relocated to 1720s Jamaica. It deals compellingly with consent, featuring a chilling description of rape ("He thought his strength gave him the right") and arguing for restorative justice. Smith's targets are otherwise slightly scattershot, including a belated attack on privilege which name-checks Jacob Rees-Mogg. It's also hard to reconcile the jokey tone with a scene where a Jordan Peterson-worshipping spouse becomes violent.

However, Indhu Rubasingham has winningly transformed her theatre into a pub lock-in, with the audience sat at tables or on side benches and an arresting backdrop of stacked bottles from designer Robert Jones. It creates a dynamic playing space and suits the inventive, freewheeling style of Smith's piece - I loved the use of a bar tray as a halo - although sight-lines are sometimes an issue. Covid rules restrict much mingling, but the few (safely distanced) elements of audience interaction are great fun.

Strutting around the stage in a curve-hugging red dress, Perkins is power personified. It's an electrifying, tour-de-force turn, with hints of pain beneath the swaggering certainty and fierce independence. But the show is also hugely engaging as a song-and-dance ensemble piece, whether it's a twerking fest, group disco, or witty round-up of Greek myths. Ultimately, it's too big of an ask for Alvita's viewpoint to be as shocking to us as the Wife of Bath's was to Chaucer's readers, yet this is still a welcome female showcase and a love letter to Smith's local community: vibrant, diverse and teeming with life.

The Wife of Willesden is at the Kiln Theatre to 15 January.

Photo credit: The Wife of Willesden (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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