"Epic Tale of Family Trauma"
by Alison Goldie for remotegoat on 28/11/18

In the centre of the stage, set up in the round, is a sturdy wooden kitchen table. Its plainness belies its history as a witness to six generations of family trauma. Every mark on it tells a tale and lets us into the lives of a rich collection of characters in the Best family, played by an ensemble of nine actors with conviction and compassion.

Short scenes build upon one another seamlessly, set in various locations to which the table travels – from a working-class home in the Midlands to a convent in Africa to a commune in 60’s Britain to a modern middle-class home. In the portrayals of characters ranging from a brutalized soldier to estranged twins to the kindly missionary nuns to an angry fatherless boy, the audience is taken on a hugely absorbing epic story of the many ways in which family pain can be transmitted. It’s like Philip Larkin’s famous poem, This Be the Verse, expanded into a vivid theatrical representation of Man handing on misery to Man.

Table deals in more than just tragedy, however. There are times of joy when children are playing, an enchanting birth scene, a charged erotic encounter in Africa and best of all, beautiful singing by the cast punctuating the action with hymns and folk songs.

The closing scenes point towards hope, as a contemporary child is kindly indulged by adults who have come to some kind of peace despite their legacy of sadness.

Director Simona Hughes tackles Tanya Ronder’s striking play, initially seen at The National Theatre and now at the lovely new Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington, with a steady hand and some exquisite theatrical touches, relying more on skill than a large budget. Standout performances include Dickon Farmer as Gideon the child, teenager, young man and grandad, and Valerie Paul as a seductive prostitute, loving nun and morally challenged hippy. Occasionally the pace slips a little, and a long argument between an estranged husband and wife is implausibly one-note, but these are minor caveats in an otherwise gripping and wise narrative journey.

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