The Wife of Willesden, review: an irresistibly rambunctious theatrical debut from Zadie Smith

Good wife?: Clare Perkins (centre) plays Alvita - Marc Brenner
Good wife?: Clare Perkins (centre) plays Alvita - Marc Brenner

Whether or not you’re an existing fan of Zadie Smith, her rambunctious theatrical debut, reinventing Chaucer for a contemporary audience, is going to be right up your street. Who’d have thought that the crucial pre-festive kick to get the post-pandemic party started would lie in the rebooting of a 600-year-old text, The Wife of Bath?

Smith’s award-winning debut novel White Teeth included the figure of Clara Bowden, described as wearing her “sexuality with an older woman’s ease”. In the case of Jamaican-born Alvita, as Smith has renamed Chaucer’s outspoken, lusty widow Alyson, the sexuality is rip-roaring, of a piece with a neighbourhood – the Borough of Brent – that Smith is besotted with, full of noise, life and working-class character.

Delivering a setting fit for a gutsy heroine, the Kiln has been radically made-over, the auditorium transformed into a cosy Kilburn High Road pub; multiple lamp-shades hang overhead, punters snuggle at tables and bottle-crammed bar units form the main décor, the centrepiece an old-fashioned curtained-off stage.

A striking lookalike of the author (played by Crystal Condie, complete with large earrings and headwrap) delivers a short spiel, recalling a Canterbury Tales-esque scenario: a 2019 lock-in during which the boozers took it in turns to tell stories, the prize a full English breakfast.

The stand-out turn elbows her way into view: Clare Perkins’s liqueur-swigging lady in red, squiffily eyeing the room with disdain. “I been married five damn times since I was 19” is her unfazed opening gambit, and from that moment on she has the room eating out of her hand, heedless of whether anyone chokes on the contents, which are as ribald and emancipated as can be.

Passion play: Scott Miller and Clare Perkins - Marc Brenner
Passion play: Scott Miller and Clare Perkins - Marc Brenner

The delight of the night – which leaves you begging for more at some 100 minutes – is the way Smith has honoured the source in terms of its poetic verve, answering Chaucer’s couplets with ingenious rhymes of her own, and established a continuum of female experience and feminist expression. We may be centuries on from socially instilled wifely submission – with God the father as the presiding patriarch – but Alvita’s contempt-meets-craving for the opposite sex, and resolve to get what she wants, in the bedroom and out, carries the original’s sense of battling the status quo.

Smith reminds us that reproving religious propriety endures, via a pop-up Nigerian minister and churchgoing aunt – and emphasises that her latterday Alyson, on the prowl for hubby number six, can quote scripture too. The evening, tartly directed by Indhu Rubasingham, locates the shock-factor in the Chaucer, daring us to watch as Perkins’s fierce force of nature revisit her husbands in turn, and, cripes, cunnilingus and male masturbation are simulated. There’s also a turn by a “black Jesus”, a brandished tray achieving a halo effect, who mocks the older men’s lack of virility. Though it’s more diatribe than drama, the chaps do get mutinous words in edgeways.

As with the original, the wife’s eventual “tale”, which relocates to 18th-century Jamaica an Arthurian quest enforced on a rapist to find out what women “want” – feels anti-climactic after the prologue. But few of those exiting to the carnivalesque disco of Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke will count themselves short-changed. Smith has said she will now return to novel-writing; on the evidence of this, our theatre would be mad to let her get away.

Until Jan 15. Tickets: 020 7328 1000;