So we start with the large wooden dinner table being built by David Best (Michael Shaeffer) as a wedding present for his wife, but the happy scenes it was meant to witness don't last long as she dies giving birth to their stillborn second son, and their first-born ends up bearing the brunt of David's grief. We occasionally flash forward to the present day where Anthony (Jonathan Cullen) is awaiting the arrival of his long-absent father, and the play follows the critical moments the table's witnessed from it's newly-polished days with David, each scene leaving some mark or damage until it's in the well-worn state his great-great-grandson finds it in.
There's a lot of interesting ideas in the staging of Table, not least of all the fact that the nine-strong cast, playing multiple roles, get the opportunity to follow their characters pretty much from birth to death, entirely through performance with no make-up changes to suggest their ages; and they do an admirable job of it. There's also some interesting scenes along the way, as the table ends up in a convent in Tanzania with a leopard hiding under it: Just as the Best family seems to be dying out with its only surviving member becoming a nun, Sarah (Rosalie Craig) rather dramatically changes her mind about her vows of celibacy - to the point of a- when she's rescued by a hunter (Paul Hilton.) Hilton also plays Gideon, the result of this pairing, whose birth is cleverly presented at the start of the second act. Gideon grows up first with the nuns, then with a hippie commune whose insistence on passing around a "talking stone" provides a scene that nicely balances comedy and dark drama.
However I'm not sure Table really adds up to much more than the sum of its parts, and not all of those parts are effective in the first place. Although there's a number of funny vignettes, the overall tone presents a rather bleak view of family life, the memories etched into the table and treasured by generations aren't ones that most people would remember that fondly. The play also has a harsh view on parents, particularly fathers, who down the generations are aggressive, uncaring or just plain absent, and pass on these traits to their sons. The final ray of hope for this theme sees Gideon's son Anthony and his partner Ben have a daughter (Sophie Wu) via a surrogate, seemingly suggesting that the only character in the story with a decent father is the one with two of them.
I think I'm going to enjoy the Shed's space over the coming year, it somehow seems bigger on the inside but is still undoubtedly intimate compared to the National's usual stages. The play too turns a little into a lot, achieving an epic scope with nine actors and a simple staging, but on the whole doesn't feel entirely satisfying.
Table by Tanya Ronder is booking until the 18th of May at the National Theatre's Shed.
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.