A long, deep scratch. A circular burn mark. Marks left by a leopard’s claw. The words AMOR PATRIS.
The table at the physical and metaphorical centre of British writer Tanya Ronder’s elegantly structured drama is etched with six generations of one family’s history.
The story begins in 1898 in the Staffordshire village home of yeoman carpenter David Best as he completes a table for his new bride.
From there, in non-linear scenes, Ronder transports the table to a convent in Tanganyika in the 1950s, to an English hippie commune in the late 1960s, and to London in 2013.
Meals are taken upon the table. Meetings are had around it. A corpse is washed and dressed on it. At one point, a young woman stands on it and gives herself to the dashing hunter who saves her life. Later, the table’s legs are removed.
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Directed by Kim Hardwick on a black box set (a minimal Isabel Hudson design, impactfully lit by Martin Kinnane), and with an agile cast of nine playing upwards of 20 characters, Table moves with easy fluency. Passages of high drama and gentle comedy seamlessly dovetail. The live singing and pre-recorded music composed by Nate Edmondson, likewise.
It moves so smoothly that, before interval, the production – to stretch the carpentry metaphor further – can seem a little smoothly planed for its own good.
It gets knottier later in the piece, however, as the family’s history is focused into a fraught meeting between the peripatetic Gideon (Julian Garner), who drifts back into the frame hoping to reconnect with his own grownup son, and Gideon’s ex-wife Michelle (Danielle King), who powerfully resents his too-late reappearance.
It takes a little while to establish relationships in your mind (not for nothing is a family tree printed in the program) but Hardwick ensures there’s vitality enough in each scene to carry you through the narrative.
The acting ensemble is strong and evenly matched. Garner impresses as he slips between roles of father and son. King is terrific as Michelle’s resentment boils over. Brendan Miles is funny in the minor role of commune leader and free love advocate Julian, Chantelle Jamieson is a vivacious nun, Sister Hope.
Stacey Duckworth contributes strongly as the table maker’s grand-daughter, Sarah. Nicole Pingon (adopted daughter Su-Lin), Mathew Lee (playing two different sons), Annie Stafford (commune teenager Aisha, among others) and Charles Upton do good work throughout.
The production’s final image is simple and lasting, asking you to consider, among other things, what is lost when we cut ourselves off from family and history – and what freedoms we might gain from doing so.