The inaugural play in the National’s temporary, very big and very red new venue is high on concept, but on contrivance also. The big idea underlying Tanya Ronder’s offering is that of the kitchen table not only serving as the surface on which we eat, work and occasionally have sex, but as witness to a family’s trials and tribulations. Here, the scars accumulated each have a story attached, from moments of towering importance, such as the scrape made by a child’s coffin, to the nicks and notches accumulated over “27 million conversations”.
Spanning over a century, and five generations of the Best family, we get a sense of the eras through which the family lived, from the emotionally stunted privations of First-World-War Britain to the hilariously over-expressed needs of 1970s sexually liberated hippydom when the table ends up being used by a commune.
With the help of director Rufus Norris and a terrific cast, it has been turned into an evening of engaging and epic storytelling. But in truth, The Table does not stand up on its own. Richard Bean wrote a play called Harvest a few years ago. It, too, spanned several generations from the First World War to the modern day and it too had a table. Except that it was only very late in the play before it emerged that this piece of furniture was witness to the whole story. It was a brilliantly observed detail, and one that, it turns out, was kept rightly in its place — in the middle of the kitchen mostly — by barely acknowledging it.