Review: The Wife of Willesden, at Kiln Theatre

Venue is converted into a local hostelry as imaginative adaption of Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath fizzes with energy

Thursday, 2nd December 2021 — By Lucy Popescu

Clare Perkins with Marcus Adolphy George Eggay and Andrew Frame Credit Marc Brenner

ZADIE Smith’s bawdy adaption of Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath will hopefully win her new fans.

Clare Perkins excels in the lead role and Indhu Rubasingham’s imaginative production fizzes with energy.

Robert Jones has transformed The Kiln into a local hostelry, Ye Olde Colin Campbell, complete with tables and chairs (where brave audience members can perch). The attention to detail is superb and includes a tiny pub stage, overhead lamps and an impressive bar with numerous bottles running in a semicircle along the back wall.

Polly (Jessica Clark), an amiable pub landlady who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, announces a lock-in, and invites the regulars to tell their stories at an open mic. At this point Alvita (Perkins) makes her entrance, dressed to kill in a tight-fitting red dress and high heels. Naturally, she takes centre stage.

In contemporary rhyming verse and slang, Alvita introduces us to her five husbands (some no longer alive) their sexual prowess (or not), her experience of domestic violence and what she’s learned about taming men. Smith even manages to include a reference to twerking in Alvita’s graphic account.

In Chaucer’s original, the Prologue is twice as long as the Tale. But here, after Alvita’s hour-long prologue, the tale feels like a digression. We are transported to 18th century Jamaica and witness a young maroon being taught a valuable lesson by an old woman. Fortunately, this retelling of a local myth is brought to glorious life by Kinnetia Isidore’s colourful costumes.

Overall, 100 minutes feels a tad long, but The Wife of Willesden is a joyous celebration of Chaucer and community. It’s impeccably acted and Smith’s first foray into drama is certainly memorable.

My main caveat is that her modern-day heroine could have been more rounded – in playing for laughs, Alvita’s sexual conquests hit the same register.

Until January 15
Kilntheatre.com

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