Review: The High Table (Bush Theatre)
Temi Wilkey's debut play runs at the west London venue before transferring to the Birmingham Rep Theatre
Temi Wilkey's debut play is a surprising, often lovely thing. It feels bang up to the minute in its depiction of the challenges faced by a young London lesbian couple planning their wedding, but also mindful of historical context and tradition as British Nigerian Tara's ancestors look down from the heavens and debate whether to bless the union. It has heart, intellectual and emotional intelligence, authenticity and genuine theatricality.
It's a rich, fanciful brew, veering from hilariously awkward family exchanges ("She doesn't even look like a man. At least if she was one of THOSE lesbians we could get away with it. With the wedding pictures," exclaims Tara's incredulous mother) to extremely bleak scenes in Nigeria where Tara's gay uncle is being shamed and persecuted. The framing sequences with the deceased ancestors are charged with a ritualistic formality (Gabrielle Nimo's movement direction is heavy on stomping and slow motion, while Mohamed Gueye's percussion work makes a thrilling, ear-splitting contribution) and also a disarming humour as the family elders bicker, jockey for superiority, and mutually misunderstand each other up on their celestial 'high table'.
Wilkey's script also explodes a number of assumptions about Africa itself, such as the perception of Nigeria as an eternal hot bed of homophobia; this is far from the case historically speaking, with same-sex unions having been actively celebrated before the arrival of Christian missionaries. Her writing here achieves a poetic intensity that holds the audience spellbound, and it is the one strand of the play that feels truly original.
Perhaps because she is also an actor, Wilkey gives her cast plenty of juicy stuff to get their teeth into and they rise to the challenges magnificently – this five-strong ensemble is ferociously good. Cherelle Skeete's street-smart Leah and Ibinabo Jack as her sensible, lovable wife-to-be – wait for the delightful sequence where the former teaches the two-left-footed latter the electric slide dance ("We should revoke your black card!") – have such unforced chemistry that when their relationship is rent asunder, the emotional stakes feel particularly high.
There is beautiful, big-hearted work from David Webber, doubling as Leah's tougher-than-he-looks father and a mostly benign ancestor, while Jumoké Fashola is an enthralling force of nature as two contrastingly fierce mother figures, the otherworldly one of which has her own unexpected agenda. She also possesses a roof-rattling singing voice. Stefan Adegbola invests mistreated Uncle Segun with a heartbreaking, watchful dignity.
Director Daniel Bailey rightly keeps the ancestors – and the musician Gueye – onstage throughout all the present day sequences, occupying the upper ground of Natasha Jenkins's earthy, abstract set and constantly observing the lives of their descendants. However, he hasn't solved the problem of a thrust stage. Much of the action is directed resolutely front and centre – leaving audience members on the side gazing at the back of actors' heads for extended sections – or else performers rotate themselves unnaturally while delivering speeches in a half-hearted attempt to engage the whole house.
After its run at the Bush, The High Table transfers to the Birmingham Rep's studio space where it will be performed in an end-on configuration. While that will undoubtedly play better, it is mystifying that the physical staging is so clumsy here, especially given the other riches on display in the writing and the acting.
If the disparate elements in Wilkey's text don't quite coalesce into a satisfactory and coherent whole, it is still refreshing and heartening to encounter a new writer who displays such wit and powerful imagination, unfettered by the constraints of linear storytelling and the boundaries of stage locales. I'm already looking forward to her next play.