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Welcome to the Sir Colin Campbell pub, where Alvita is ready to tell you a tale or two…


BWW Review: THE WIFE OF WILLESDEN, Kiln Theatre "All were worthy men in their degree." The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1392, all linked by the central narrative of a pilgrimage from the Tabard Inn in Southwark to Thomas à Becket's shrine in Canterbury Cathedral; it features characters such as the Knight, Pardoner, Miller, and Merchant - though Zadie Smith has chosen to base her new play on one of the few female characters. The Wife of Bath becomes The Wife of Willesden.

This is an all Brent affair, with what appears to be Smith taking Chaucer's place as the narrator and the Kilburn locals gathered for a lock-in at the infamous Sir Colin Campbell pub, coincidentally located just across the road from the Kiln Theatre. With the prize of a free cooked breakfast (with chips!) up for grabs, everyone takes their turn to tell a story. Unsurprisingly, the early stages of the competition is dominated by over-confident men, but when Alvita steps up everyone is ready to listen.

She sneakily manages to tell two stories for the price of one, recounting her romantic history - she's now reached husband number five - by way of a prologue to her actual tale. It sets the scene nicely, and the two stories naturally complement each other. Rather than the Arthurian legend of Chaucer's original, the same tale of rape and redemption takes place in Maroon Town, Jamaica; a young man assaults a woman, but his death sentence is suspended for a year and, in the spirit of restorative justice, he is offered the chance to avoid it entirely if he can work out what all women want. The task is not as simple as he first expects...

The fact of the matter is, the messages of these stories are so timeless that it doesn't matter what context you place them in. 600 years on women still face inequality of one kind or another - such as being at greater risk of becoming victims of domestic abuse, or receiving fewer opportunities to tell their stories their way. Though this play depicting women finding their voices and drawing on their inner strength could easily have been labelled 'timely' had it been produced at any time in the past eight months (at the very least), that the opening night comes a day after Bluetones singer Mark Morriss was accused of multiple counts of physical and emotional abuse by his ex-wife (journalist Anna Wharton) - a burgeoning Britpop #MeToo moment - makes it all the more vital.

This 95-minute play is warm and entertaining for the most part, with the occasional shocking or affecting moment here and there to add a bit of colour. As you would expect with a Zadie Smith piece, it wholeheartedly celebrates NW6 and all its many characters - from the religious aunties all the way across to students who move to the area.

The combination of the layout of the theatre and its set design is simply outstanding; designer Robert Jones has transformed it from an ordinary auditorium into an extension of the Sir Colin Campbell pub, even including some table seats so a section of the audience is truly immersed in Alvita's world. The cherry on top would be if the set could include a functioning bar, so patrons in the stalls could buy a drink from the 'pub' in a similar vein to Once - though possibly not the most COVID-safe idea at the moment.

The cast is fantastic - the actors all seem to have gelled wonderfully to make it feel like an authentic and vibrant community, quick on their feet as the show moves on at a fast pace. Ellen Thomas and Theo Solomon are rather moving as the Old Wife and Young Maroon, plus Crystal Condie is especially engaging as the Author.

Unsurprisingly, however, it is Clare Perkins' turn as Alvita which is the lifeblood of the show. She knows exactly how to grab an audience's attention and hold it for the duration, bringing rage, fire and supreme confidence to this incredible character. As a tribute to the original Chaucer, the play is written in verse; Perkins uses this to her advantage, particularly in moments of out-and-out comedy where her delivery really enhances the humour. This is another towering performance from Clare Perkins.

Not only is this a play about the triumph of the female spirit and the power of a good story, but it also recognises the importance of community - something that the Kiln Theatre has always been proud to foster. Last but not least, it's a really fun night out and the perfect choice if you're still trying to decide on your first show back after lockdown.

The Wife of Willesden is at the Kiln Theatre until 15 January 2022

Picture credit: Marc Brenner

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From This Author - Debbie Gilpin