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Table (NT Shed)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Sophie Wu & Paul Hilton (photo credit Richard Hubert Smith)

There's a big red wooden shed gone up outside the National Theatre: this is The Shed, standing in for the Cottesloe, which is closed for refurbishment before re-opening as the Dorfman next year.

Inside, perhaps disappointingly, it's just another black box, squarer than the Cottesloe, seating for 225, a gallery round the top, the whole structure bolted on to the front of the Lyttelton foyer with a very agreeable new bar area conveniently adjacent to the coffee counter.

A similar sort of "sensible" doggedness characterises the opening show, Tanya Ronder's Table, directed by Rufus Norris and played by a crack company of nine actors across four generations gathered round and circling the same, er, table. The show's been incubating for three years.

We see the newly varnished table leaving a Lichfield workshop for a married couple's home, transported to a missionary station in Tanganyika in the 1950s, commandeered for a comedy commune in Hertfordshire in the 1960s, and restored (after its legs have been chopped off) for a family show-down in contemporary South London.

The family tree is printed in the programme, but it's not always crystal clear who's auntie or uncle or, in the case of Paul Hilton's father and son, who's grandpa or black sheep.

Hilton uses all his resources of mystical cunning to make the switches, and his charismatic performance as a white hunter who shoots a stray leopard in the mission - the blood on the wall reproduces the old splatter trick from Christopher Hampton's The Philanthropist - is rewarded with a nun doing a striptease.

That nun is played by Rosalie Craig, whose bell-like singing voice is prominent in the succession of hymns, chants and spirituals that fleck the evening, oiling what might have seemed otherwise a jerky progression of so-what scenes.

These are enlivened, however, by Daniel Cerqueira and Michael Shaeffer as various sons, fathers and hippies (in dodgy wigs), and by Sophie Wu as a modern-day Chinese ten-year-old in a pink tutu with an alarming tendency to dance on the table top, whereas Hilton cowers beneath it, Penny Layden as a distraught senior grips it with both hands and Maggie Service jolts it as a jilted "jolie laide."

Hilton's performance is the glue in Ronder's carpentry, and the piece is given its best chance in Norris's fluent staging, Katrina Lindsay's pragmatic design - the table itself, pocked with runnels and etchings, is cleverly built to survive all mishaps - Paule Constable's lighting and David Shrubsole's music.


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