Wife of Willesden: Kilburn Kiln ****

Clare Perkins stars as Alvita in Zadie Smith's The Wife of Willesden at The Kiln Theatre

Clare Perkins stars as Alvita in Zadie Smith's The Wife of Willesden at The Kiln Theatre - Credit: Marc Brenner

Zadie Smith's raucous, witty debut play is a love letter to her home neighbourhood.

She even puts herself in it, as The Author (Crystal Condie) apologising for putting Brent's inhabitants in her books: "sorry if I made you sound too posh or too common."

But this contemporary re-working of Chaucer's Wife of Bath is really a one woman show with a colourful backing band playing assorted preachers, husbands, Greek Gods, barmaids, Jesus - complete with beer tray halo - and Nelson Mandela.

The night belongs to Clare Perkins, a tour de force as Alvita the five-times married wife. Dressed in a tight scarlet dress and swirling a Bailey's, she unapologetically leads us through her lusts and loves in boisterous verse while decrying male double standards and slut shaming.

Wife of Willesden

Scott Miller (Ryan), Clare Perkins (Alvita) The Wife of Willesden. - Credit: Marc Brenner

Like Chaucer's pilgrims we are in a pub - the sticky-floored Sir Colin Campbell on Kilburn High Road (lovingly imagined by Robert Jones) It's a lock-in and a Willesden mix of characters are sharing their stories - since the front 'rows' are seated at pub tables that includes us too.

With her message of female agency and desire one can only imagine how transgressive Chaucer's wife was 600 years ago. Even today a sexually active middle-aged woman talking openly about her pleasure and husband's penis size feels joyfully taboo busting.

Director Indhu Rubasingham marshals the scattered literary allusions, sly feminist asides, digressions, and stories within stories with energy and verve.

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But while Smith's transposing of Chaucer's Arthurian tale of rape to colonial Jamaica is intriguing and dazzlingly staged, the section wanders on and loses focus. And there's little beyond caricature for the supporting cast - Alvita's search for love is rather undercut by having her husbands as mere ciphers.

The Wife of Willesden

Marcus Adolphy, George Eggay, Andrew Frame, and Clare Perkins in The Wife of Willesden at the Kiln - Credit: Marc Brenner

But as she gets her hapless menfolk up to twerk and grind this evening with the irrepressible Alvita is also just fun. Definitely one for a girl's night out.