The Wife of Willesden review: Zadie Smith’s witty take on Chaucer pulls its punches

Clare Perkins gives an inspired performance at the Kiln Theatre, but Smith clings too closely to this well-loved literary text

Alice Saville
Thursday 18 November 2021 14:16
<p>Clare Perkins with Marcus Adolphy, George Eggay and Andrew Frame in ‘The Wife of Willesden'</p>

Clare Perkins with Marcus Adolphy, George Eggay and Andrew Frame in ‘The Wife of Willesden'

Zadie Smith’s first play begins with a personal introduction from the writer herself (as hilariously impersonated on stage by Crystal Condie). The award-winning novelist admits that she’s a bit nervous about putting her native Willesden on stage, and about pissing off its residents, before offering apologies for her literary output to date. Her self-deprecation isn’t necessary: true to form, the characters she draws here feel rich and real. But perhaps her approach to source material, Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale, could have done with a bit more boldness.

This story centres on Alvita, a woman who’s worn out five husbands, who yells “I demand pleasure!” to the heavens, who’s proud of the control she fights to exercise over men. Clare Perkins’ inspired performance makes her leap off the page; it feels somewhere between a stand-up gig and a raucous party commandeered by its very charismatic host.

Her narration of a life spent at war with her five successive husbands is often fascinating: after all, this is a tale for the ages. But Smith clings too closely to this well-loved literary text, letting its contours stop her play taking on a life of its own. Yes, she sets it in a 21st-century local pub, which Robert Jones’s set design recreates with a gorgeous plushy theatricality, with gleaming ranks of bottles and ornate red curtains. And there are some witty 21st-century London updates – “jollof” rhymes with “slag off” here.

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