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The Wife of Willesden at Kiln Theatre

If you fancy some festive bawdiness – either as your return to live, non-socially-distanced theatre or as an alternative to seasonal Panto – but crave a bit more literary roughage in your entertainment diet, this is the show for you. There are certain self-congratulatory gags that reveal the commissioned nature of the work (which celebrates Brent’s role as the London Borough of Culture) but the beauty of paying homage to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is that it offers a tried-and-tested story device that can pretty much handle any trope du jour.

Clare Perkins (Alvita, The Wife of Willesden)_The Wife of Willesden, Kiln Theatre. Credit Marc Brenner.
Clare Perkins (Alvita, The Wife of Willesden)_The Wife of Willesden, Kiln Theatre. Credit Marc Brenner.

With the mix of Clare Perkins’ energetic and commanding performance as Alvita, the Wife of Willesden, and director Indhu Rubasingham’s masterful world-building, I defy the crowd not to be pleased. Rubasingham’s staging is fun and clever in a way that doesn’t take itself too seriously – squarely fulfilling its duty to entertain.

The Kiln’s space is transformed in a joyous and immersing manner with designer Robert Jones’ take on the pilgrims’ tavern. No Panto-esque participation is asked of the audience but there is a sense of festive intimacy (without the cringe) thanks to the set-up. (I consider it bordering on a spoiler if I say anymore on the subject but, for me, circle seats provided the best view in the house and kept me happily in the shadows where I prefer to be. If you like being closer to the action (but not exactly part of it), you can select seats on the floor-level stage or book a table stage-side).

Bearing in mind that Zadie Smith’s script is based on a 14th-century poem told from the point-of-view of one woman, it would be easy for a theatrical rendition to fall into ‘lecture-mode’ narration. Also, given the restrictions of the last two years on cast sizes, one might imagine a kind of spoken word poetry performance with possibly a few skits illustrating the references. As with Chaucer’s tale, the Wife digresses and dishes on characters in her life as well as legendary figures. Whilst Alvita does take the mic and spin a yarn that is both advisory and provocative, the tales within the tale allow for all sorts of wonderful scenes that are enacted onstage.

Rubasingham’s Brecht-like ability to draw on prop-transformation for sketches within the central conceit is always a pleasure to watch – her staging is simply so skilled and clever that there is a magic-trick moment of glee in beholding it. The play itself, however, does not contain a wide enough range of emotional notes to show off the magnificent Clare Perkins’ nor her director’s capacity for nuance, on this occasion. After all, Smith is adapting a story told – and told very well – by a woman about her life. It is, of course, a tale relayed to a captive audience (whether pilgrims paused on the way to Canterbury or enjoying a Kilburn lock-in). Whilst we in the theatre, like those in the tavern, are transported by her stories, we do not witness any development or change in the storyteller herself. I don’t think it especially matters and doubt a character arc was the author’s intent, but it does make the show more like a sharp-witted cabaret think-piece than a play. The personalities with whom we are graced are enormous; the characters fierce and fun; the performances electric and skilled – but this is not a layered drama in which we see psyches exposed or lives transformed.

Whilst Chaucer’s original tale of The Wife of Bath was amongst 23 others and presented in the wider context of different perspectives on the same theme so that readers could notice sometimes contradictory takes on society and humanity, The Wife of Willesden is a singular story centred on the perspective of one character and she does most of the speaking; which means plenty of story-telling but limited conflict or resolution. Nonetheless, the characterisation of Alvita is compelling, even if the odd ultra-local or ultra-topical quip (made by her or her BFF Zaire [Chrystal Condie]) can feel too cliquey with the here-and-now. I don’t think this play, in its present form, will travel or endure as long as its inspiration, but I think it will keep many London theatregoers amused and edified for the duration of its run and then some.

4 stars

Review by Mary Beer

A proper local legend. Married five times. Mother. Lover. Aunt. Friend. Alvita will tell her life story to anyone in the pub – there’s no shame in her game. The question is: are you ready to hear it?
Because this woman’s got the gift of the gab: she can rewrite mistakes into triumphs, turn pain into parables, and her love life’s an epic poem. They call her The Wife of Willesden…
A play that celebrates the human knack for telling elaborate tales, especially about our own lives. Critically acclaimed, multi-award winning, best-selling author Zadie Smith makes her playwriting debut, transporting Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath to 21st Century North West London.

Cast: Marcus Adolphy (Winston/Mandela/Black Jesus), Jessica Clark (Polly/Sophie), Crystal Condie (Author/Zaire/Queen Nanny), George Eggay (Pastor/Eldridge), Andrew Frame (Ian/Socrates/Bartosz), Scott Miller (Ryan), Clare Perkins (Alvita – The Wife of Willesden), Hussina Raja (Asma), Theo Solomon (Darren/Young Maroon/Colin) and Ellen Thomas (Aunty P/Old Wife).

Directed by Indhu Rubasingham; Designed by Robert Jones; Lighting Design by Guy Hoare; Composition and Sound Design by Ben and Max Ringham; Associate Costume Design by Kinnetia Isidore; Casting by Julia Horan CDG; Movement Direction by Celise Hicks; Fight Direction by Kev McCurdy; Dialect and Voice Coach Hazel Holder; Associate Director Hannah Hauer-King.

WORLD PREMIÈRE
Kiln Theatre presents
in association with Brent2020, London Borough of Culture
THE WIFE OF WILLESDEN
Adapted by Zadie Smith
From Chaucer’s THE WIFE OF BATH
11 November – 24 December 2021
Press night: 17 November at 7pm
https://kilntheatre.com/

Author

  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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