New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme, 8-23 June 2018
Don’t be put off by the prosaic title of the new play at the New Vic. Table is a highly imaginative enactment of a family saga that weaves together stories from six generations of a family to create a colourful, complex, and moving drama.
The table in question is made by Staffordshire craftsman David Best in 1898 as a wedding present to himself. He’s still giving it an admiring final polish as his new wife drags him away to bed. “Well, it’s solid,” she says.
As the table passes from one generation to the next that solidity takes a bashing. It gradually acquires the rough marks of experience, in parallel with the family whose sores accumulate likewise. There’s a gouge made by a distraught father as his son leaves for war; scratches left by a coffin; burn marks and stains made by rebellious youth. It even loses its legs at one point.
This family ‘loses’ a member one sad way or another in each generation. In the most poignant case, a father tries to reclaim his place but only gets as far as leaving graffiti on the table leg.
We’re even confronted – like the table – with the question ‘What is a family?’ A convent in Tanganyika? A rural hippy commune? A pair of gay men with a child born of a surrogate mother?
It’s this child that gives us the hopeful ending and a sense of possible reconciliation – though she tells us she would junk the table and replace it with a glass-topped one from Ikea.
Table is epic storytelling with keen drama. It contains some scenes, both sordid and touchingly beautiful, of an adult nature. In neither case are they gratuitous.
The cast of eight is uniformly excellent, delivering perfect clarity playing multiple characters and sometimes at various ages. Phil Cheadle as Gideon Best gives a terrific display of anguish, swinging the table around the stage in frustration. Katherine Manners as Sarah Best is sangfroid-with-a-twist personified when ‘saved’ from a leopard’s mauling.
And how they can sing! At the New Vic we are accustomed to an ensemble of actors who double as musicians. Here they use only that most expressive of all instruments – the human voice. There are familiar hymns and African chants arranged with harmonies that send a shiver up your spine. As a remorseful Gideon and his angry abandoned wife Michelle hammer it out over the battered table, the rest of the cast watch like silent ghosts from the family closet – and you can’t wait for them to sing.
Table was written by Tanya Ronder and first performed at London’s National Theatre in 2013. This is its regional première, directed by Zoë Waterman.