The critics love it, and it’s certainly an eye-catching, not to say in-yer-face addition to the South Bank. This is the National Theatre’s temporary replacement for the Cottesloe/Dorfman, named The Shed and, fortuitously in the circumstances, looking rather like an upturned table.
There’s a new foyer inside the main building that looks as if it’s been there forever. Next to the brand new bar (no glass, and no free water either) there are comfy sofas covered in exotic throws and worn leather chairs that look as if they come from the National’s furniture store. The theatre itself feels a bit like a smaller Cottesloe, friendly and intimate, but the sight lines from the seats on the upper level are shocking. The guard rail cuts right across the eyeline which means you have to lean forward to see anything at all, quite possibly annoying your neighbours in the row behind. And on a cold night it was fearsomely hot.
I have to say I wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about the theatre, or the play itself, as the critics have been. Table is a new play that has been workshopped over the years in the National Studio. Written by Tanya Ronder and directed by her husband Rufus Norris, the story spans several generations of the same family and a table. The action hops from 19th century Lichfield to 20th century Tanganyika to 21st century south London as we follow the table’s progress. It gets scored, peed upon, hidden under and its legs cut off. It’s a great idea and there are some wonderful moments, particularly involving song and occasionally movement, but I can’t say I found myself particularly engaged in these people’s lives, and the first half is very short on laughs. There’s a nun who spontaneously gives herself to a hunter (in Africa) but years later refuses to let him see their son, a storyline that is never fully explored or explained. In the final scene that same son pays a visit to his son, now living with a male partner and their surrogate daughter, hoping to reconnect with them. If there is an underlying theme it’s family, desertion and abandonment, and it ends on a merry and perhaps optimistic note. But to me, despite fabulous performances and some very deft direction the play and its characters never really took off. (And it could have done with some editing.)
Anyway, despite my curmudgeonly views it’s good to be back in London and seeing the National leading the field as outrageously – and unpredictably – as ever.