It seems appropriate that the first show in the National Theatre’s new, temporary performance space on the South Bank should announce itself just as plainly and unassumingly as its venue. Table, the world premiere christening The Shed, is about just that, using a tough wooden dining table as the focal point for a domestic tale that straddles the generations. Tanya Ronder’s play, tracing 115 years of one family’s tumultuous history, zooms in on the stains that can’t be scrubbed away, the grit that remains lodged in the grooves of the wood and the messages carved indelibly on its surface. Her eponymous piece of furniture is living history, speaking just as loudly as its human owners.
Katrina Lindsay’s design furnishes the intimate interior of The Shed with not one but two tables, the raised wooden space of the stage mirroring the sturdy domestic linchpin that sits upon it. Hewn with love and breathless hopes for the future, this stubbornly resilient item of furniture begins life as the creation of carpenter David Best, made to sit in the home he makes with his wife in late nineteenth-century Lichfield. From here, it is passed down from generation to generation, journeying first to a convent in Africa and then back to England and a hippy commune in Herefordshire, before finally ending up as the battered, beloved centrepiece of a family home in South London. Along the way it witnesses sex and betrayal, deaths and births, the grime and the mess and the joy of human life.
Ronder packs a lot into the play’s two hours and 20 minutes, at times resorting to the crowbar. From troubled nuclear families to a convent of missionary nuns, from a commune dedicated to alternative living to a gay couple with a half-Asian daughter born through a surrogate, there is a determination to portray as many different living arrangements as possible over the span of six generations. While this tactic provides colour and continual interest, the limits of plausibility are occasionally stretched, and some scenes – such as the painfully stereotypical commune, complete with goat’s milk and bed-swapping – seem inserted purely for laughs. The first half of the show is tight and cannily plotted, engaging the emotions with impressive rapidity, but as the narrative goes on the grip progressively slackens.
Although Ronder’s plot may run away from her, Norris’ sensitive, precise direction offers up some heart-catchingly beautiful moments: the presciently precarious, delicate image of David’s short-lived bride ascending a row of chairs in her wedding gown; the use of the table as a womb giving birth to the next generation, from which a protectively curled performer tumbles, Bambi-like, all helplessly flailing limbs; the gorgeous sequences of song that cradle the piece, smoothly linking scenes while nodding to ritual and familiarity. The production also benefits from a set of uniformly committed performances from its cast, who wring extraordinarily vivid characterisations from Ronder’s series of fleeting snapshots.
For all that this journey through the generations might be contrived – and, make no mistake, it is – the slightness of its meandering plot is balanced by a charm that begs forgiveness for its flaws. But when the smile fades, this production still leaves us wondering what it might be saying about the family, a unit of living that receives just as much of a bashing over the years as the table that unwaveringly anchors it. Are we damned by what we inherit, both in terms of the traits passed down to us and the upbringing we receive? Ronder’s generation game would seem to suggest so, as each successive member of the Best family kicks against what has come before but inevitably makes similar mistakes; generation upon generation of children knowingly or unknowingly wronged by their parents. And by the end, even our old friend the table is endangered, at threat of being replaced by a sleekly functional sliver of glass from Ikea. History might be deeply ingrained, but we are all too good at forgetting.
Exeunt takes an early look inside The Shed at the National Theatre.