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Table

by on 24 September 2019

Thoughtful and Gripping

Table

by Tanya Ronder

Questors at The Studio, Ealing, until 28th September

Review by Mark Aspen

“If walls had ears” … they say … but what if a table had eyes, and ears and all the senses, for a table interacts much more with people than a wall. This is the thesis of Tanya Ronder’s ambitious intimate epic of a play, Table, in which the eponymous piece of furniture is as much a character as the human actors.

Table6

The play follows the family fortunes, or rather misfortunes, over a period of 115 years from the end of the nineteenth century up until 2013. All are united, or divided, by their commonalities. All seek happiness, and all (or maybe almost all) fail. Table potently illustrates the disintegration of family structures and values that have occurred over the last twelve decades or so, caused by huge upheavals such as war, but more so by changing social values. We all long for the continuity of the family, but is it still there? This is what makes Table such a thoughtful and gripping play.

There are no less than twenty-two characters in Table, members of the (ironically named) Best family. Over the decades, the biological family may spill into other “families”, maybe convents or communes, but these do not have the permanence of the blood line. The story, and its intercalated sub-stories, is revealed through a series of snapshots, but unlike a family photo-album we do not see only the happy and posed moments. The chronology is non-linear, so we are able to note recurring themes. If all this seems tough on the audience, it is. (The programme, though, helpfully contains a family tree). However, such is the skill of the Questors’ company that, although we look at the family metaphorically through the gaps in a picket fence, we really care for them. The first-night audience was totally engaged.

The play is equally tough on the cast of eight, who are not only called upon to play up to four characters each but also to portray their characters at myriad points in their lives, from cradle to grave, even as a new-born baby or as a corpse. Moreover, several characters speak in Cantonese or Swahili, and, oh, they must all sing well. And they do, for crucially the scenes are linked with snatches from the hymnal. These, although well-known hymns, make you think, for they comment pithily on the action. Inevitably, and pertinently, the most used is the reflective, “Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways …”

These foolish ways are seen, heard and felt by the ever-present table and indeed it is personified by one of the actors, who plays the character Gideon, the member of the family who is perceptive of the heritage of the table and its tangible link between the generations that mean so much to him. Effectively, Gideon is the table.

Table RR4A good point to talk about the set: well, the set is the table. Normally tables are a director’s and designer’s nightmare: they get in the way. But here, congratulations, to the comprehensively consummate director Steve Fitzpatrick and to his inventive designers, especially the table constructor, Stephen Souchon, whose ingenuity allows the table to be moved, flown from the fly frame, and most remarkably cut up with axe and saws, and then later reconstituted. (Although there were some heart-stopping moments when the set did seem to be a test-bed!). The action takes place on a thrust stage, which helps the stage proxemics. Costumes and props are struck and set on the go, and Terry Mummery’s subtle lighting and Paul Wilson’s sound design appropriately enhanced the mood.

So, what happens? Well, lots and lots. And all of it on or around the table. There are health warnings on the box: violence, nudity, sex (lots), gunshots, prostitution, homosexuality, paedophilia, incest … but thankfully no smoking! The Best family have a very busy 115 years! No animals are harmed … except a leopard shot by a big-game hunter, but we only see blood splashed on the cyc. However none of this trivialises what is an in-depth study of human relationships, carefully and sensitively examined.

TableRR3Amongst the relationships, fatherhood and motherhood feature strongly. The play is parenthesised by a prologue and an epilogue, repeating the cause of the marks on the table. Significantly this is recited by Gideon. It is Gideon, brought up as an only child, who most seeks a father. The only link he ever has with his father, Jack Holman, is the phrase pater familis carved on the table edge. Gideon’s emotional journey is as convoluted as his physical globe-trotting from his birthplace in post-colonial Tanganyika. Neil Dickens plays this role with intensity and physicality (he spends much of his under the table). In his attempt to reconcile with his wife and son, whom he abandoned three decades earlier, he is revealed as being as vulnerable as everyone else.

TableRR2Sarah, Gideon’s mother, also spends her life seeking. She is seeking something to believe in and it always just eludes her. Jordan Fowler (who also plays Elizabeth, the wife of the joiner who originally makes the table) is outstanding in this difficult role, portraying the hard knocks of Sarah’s life. Her twin brother, Albert and disabled father, Finley gradually become a burden as they cannot accept her Catholic faith. She becomes a missionary nun and has the table shipped out to the convent in Tanganyika. It is here she has her fateful meeting with Jack Holman, a big-game hunter who saves her from a marauding leopard. Sarah’s impulsive emotional response is to strip naked and offer herself to him.

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Now here is a small difficulty with this play. After a notional nine-month long interval (yes, the bar and loo one), we return to witness the birth of Gideon, propelled into the world with a somersault from under the table. Is this a light-hearted attempt to leaven a heavy play, or is it just making fun of itself? This self-deprecation is, nevertheless, obvious in the scenes in which Sarah, the teenage Gideon and the table join a 1960’s hippie commune. This, presented as a caricature of the flower-power era, admittedly a sitting target for a bit of mickey-taking, rather trips up the passage of the plot. The second half of Table is perhaps not as well written as the first, and the scenes of Gideon’s belated family reconciliation seem somewhat overworked.

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However the hippie episode does underline the message of the danger of messing with social and family structures, for their advocacy of free love does not turn out well, as their commune breaks up in rancour and jealousies. Sex is not a game, and fidelity is important to emotional security.

The density of the plot and its episodic nature does not lead to full analysis here, and the ensemble working of the cast is exemplary. Most actors play multiple roles and all differentiate them superbly. Special mention must be made of Lucy Aley-Parker, who stepped into her roles in the last minute. These include the hidebound Mother Superior and Michelle, Gideon’s hard-bitten wife. From her sharp acting book-in-hand on press night, one felt she would be seamless before the end of the run.

Oscar Gill’s Finley, coarsened and wounded mentally by the First World War, is a text-book example of hitting a difficult role at the right level, as it could easily be overplayed. HisTableRR! depiction of Finley’s final months, incapacitated by a stroke and dependent of his resentful son, Albert, is superlative.

Nia Acquaye’s transformation from brassy prostitute to demure nun is striking. As Sister Hope, strong in her faith, her interpretation of the scene in which she parts with Sarah and her young son when they are expelled from the convent is so moving, “I’ve never felt so miserable”.

Emma Kennedy’s contrasting roles of Margaret, Finley’s brittle-edged wife, and the feisty Sister Babette; and Tony Sears embittered Albert against the well-grounded David Best, the joiner, are further examples of top-notch acting.

As the youngest member of the hierarchy, Su-Lin, the ebullient actress Ting Ting Cul exactly captures the innocent charm and breathless naivety of the juvenile adoptee. Su-Lin has three carers, the gay couple Anthony and the unseen Ben, and Anthony’s mother, Michelle. One wonders in projected extension to the chronology, what would happen on the demise of Michelle. Would she be another lost soul searching for a mother-figure and for a father? Would she look for carvings on the ubiquitous table, or would she be adding to its scars? What if a table had eyes, and ears and … a sixth sense.

Mark Aspen
September 2019

Photography by Robert Vass and Rishi Rai

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