The Wife of Willesden review: Zadie Smith’s offbeat first play

Scott Miller and Clare Perkins in The Wife of Willesden  (Marc Brenner)
Scott Miller and Clare Perkins in The Wife of Willesden (Marc Brenner)

Zadie Smith’s first play is a raucous updating of Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath to contemporary Kilburn, setting polyglot London patois to verse and featuring a barnstorming performance by Clare Perkins. Created to celebrate her home neighbourhood Brent’s stint as London Borough of Culture, it delights in language, swagger and female sexuality.

True, Smith, the best-selling author of White Teeth and NW, isn’t entirely at home in the world of theatre: she inserts a lookalike character called The Writer to apologise for her shortcomings. But I’d take this offbeat partial hit, which is more of an event or a happening than a play, over many safer, straighter works.

The Kiln has been appealingly transformed into a version of the pub over the road, The Sir Colin Campbell, with tables on the stage and a bottle-lined bar at the back. During a lock-in, landlady Polly offers an open mic for her punters’ stories. Bored with the dronings of pompous men, Perkins’s Alvita – who wears a skintight scarlet dress and knockoff designer heels and “gives side-eye perfectly” – steps up to give them an earful.

In line with the original, the first two-thirds of this 95-minute play consist of the prologue, in which the 55-year-old, five-times married Alvita expounds on female sovereignty and sexual license and decries those who moralise - priests in Chaucer’s 14th century world, “slut-shamers” now.

Clare Perkins (Marc Brenner)
Clare Perkins (Marc Brenner)

She summons her husbands from the crowd and details their virtues and shortcomings – even Ryan, half her age, who gaslit and hit her. “I demand pleasure,” she cries, also calling forth Jesus, Nelson Mandela and St Paul from among the boozers to support her right to live and love unashamedly. Smith pleasingly melds contemporary slang with formal poetic metre, rhyming “spirit” with “innit”.

In Chaucer’s version the wife’s actual tale is an Arthurian legend of a disgraced knight who surrenders his body and his will to the old hag who redeems him: whereupon she becomes young and beautiful.

Smith transposes the story to the 18th century Jamaica of the rebel Queen Nanny, plays it for laughs and ends on a singalong. It’s an awkward swerve for those not au fait with Middle English narrative forms and the reinvention of folk tales. But it also interrupts Alvita’s prologue just as it threatens to become repetitive.

Perkins commands the stage throughout, by turns imperious, hilarious and raunchy. Indhu Rubasingham’s production is full of brio and unpretentiously immersive, the supporting ensemble enlisting our sympathy with sidelong glances and sheepish grins. This is a bizarre and uneven evening, but in a good way.

Kiln Theatre, to 15 Jan,

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