Adapting Zadie Smith’s phenomenal novel for the stage is like trying to harness a whirlwind. The book leaps back and forth in time between 1945 and 1999 and offers multiple perspectives on what Smith calls the “immigrant experiment”. Stephen Sharkey’s stage version, with songs by Paul Englishby, captures something of the book’s buoyancy but inevitably feels as if it is trying to squeeze a whole narrative flood into a pint pot.
Sharkey adopts a dual framing-device. The story is seen partly through the coma-induced eyes of Rosie Jones, a dentist delving into her mixed-race family’s past.
In particular, she explores the story of her mum, Irie, who is never sure which of the twin sons of a Bangladeshi Muslim family, the Iqbals, was the father of her child. But, in addition to following the intertwined fortunes of the Jones and Iqbal clans, Sharkey seizes on a minor character in the book, a north London vagrant called Mad Mary, and turns her into a choric figure who comes closest to expressing the main theme when she talks of the “multiculti muddle” of modern Britain.
It is all done with great zest, but the book’s dizzying temporal leaps lead to a restless theatrical kaleidoscope in which no scene ever lasts long. The upbeat numbers, echoing the pop styles of different periods, also seem at odds with a story that implies an unnerving connection between genetic engineering and the treatment of immigrants as part of an ongoing project. If the stage version has a moral, it is that we stop agonising over the past and rejoice in the randomness and variety of today’s multicultural world.
While that simplifies Smith’s book, Indhu Rubasingham’s production has buoyancy and is put across by a first-rate, 14-strong cast, many of whom double as musicians. Michele Austin as Mad Mary, Ayesha Antoine as the inquisitive Irie, Tony Jayawardena as the tradition-loving Iqbal patriarch and Sid Sagar and Assad Zaman as his warring sons all impress, but the final sensation is of a story hard to contain within the two-hour-plus traffic of the stage.
• At the Kiln, London, until 22 December.