Tanya Ronder
New Vic Theatre Company
New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme

Emma Lau (Sister Babette), Katherine Manners (Sarah), Polly Lister (Mother Superior) and Phil Cheadle (Gideon) Credit: Andrew Billington
Paul Mundell (Albert) and Katherine Manners (Sarah) Credit: Andrew Billington
Henry Everett (Julian), Krissi Bohn (Stacey) and Phil Cheadle (Gideon) Credit: Andrew Billington

Five years after its debut at the National Theatre, Tanya Ronder’s Table is having its regional première in north Staffordshire. When the play was first unveiled, it was in the National’s then temporary space The Shed which was said to be an apt venue because it resembled... an upside-down table.

The New Vic is similarly appropriate, not because of its shape but due to the theatre-in-the-round’s intimate atmosphere which encapsulates the tensions and stresses faced by members of a dysfunctional family.

The table is the one thing that remains constant as Ronder lays bare the internecine relationships of six generations of the Best family. The table starts off in the family home in Lichfield, the pride and joy of carpenter David Best who caresses it as tenderly as his new wife.

Each stain, crack and scar harks back to a story of love, tragedy and disillusionment as the table is used not only for family meals but also for dancing, displaying a coffin and a series of sexual encounters.

The theatre’s associate director Zoë Waterman directs and as usual at the New Vic you get a stylish production with a committed cast which is staged superbly.

But the difference with Table is that it’s more edgy and darker than the usual New Vic offering. The nudity and bad language are there to shock and certainly had the desired effect on a predominantly ageing audience on the night I saw the play.

Table is a complicated production which is split across four timeframes as the action moves to Tanganyika in the 1950s, following Sarah Best when she becomes a missionary, and then returns to a hippy commune in rural England in the Swinging ‘60s.

There are lighter moments in the play but the most successful scenes involve members of the family confronting each other over their selfish yet regrettable ways.

The ensemble cast all give impressive performances, none more so than Phil Cheadle as Gideon, the illegitimate son who as a youngster struggles to come to terms with his mixed-up life.

As the adult Gideon, Cheadle superbly portrays a man who has abandoned his wife and son. He admits their relationship is so fractured that he wants to kill her but never acts on his desires.

His angry confrontation with his wife Michelle, deftly depicted by Polly Lister whose class shines through her unmitigated anger, is the highlight of the evening.

There are other noteworthy touches, including the way the actors convincingly become children of differing ages. Emma Lau is especially persuasive as Su-Lin, her mannerisms capturing the charm and cuteness of a nine-year-old girl.

The least successful section is the one in the commune which doesn’t have the depth nor incisiveness of the rest of the play; the notion of free love leads too easily to conflict and confessions.

Table may not be to everyone’s taste, as evidenced by the sparse attendance on the night I was at the New Vic. Perhaps it’s the title that put some people off. That’s a shame because this is a clever production that tells a deep story at times in a completely captivating way.

Reviewer: Steve Orme

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