The National Theatre does lots of different things brilliantly, but pretending to be an edgy innovative fringe venue isn't one of them. A couple of years ago it converted its backstage paintshop into a temporary venue for a summer season of new plays, with varying results. Now with the Cottesloe closed for rebuilding, there's a new box-shaped temporary venue called The Shed, which is supposed to be 'rough, experimental and ...really exciting'.
First up in a series of six plays in the new black cube (black inside, red outside) is Table, a new play by Tanya Ronder. My heart sank when I read in the programme that this was based on three years of improvisation by actors, but I hoped for the best. In fact I was so bored and irritated by the first half that I left at the interval. Actors can of course improvise scenes quite brilliantly, as Mike Leigh has often shown; but they cannot improvise a whole play, any more than musicians can improvise a symphony. That's what writers are for.
Table is a kind of family history scrapbook in which several generations come and go, linked only by a piece of furniture. Even with the very talented Rufus Norris directing, it struggles to become more than the sum of its parts. A table is of course good for eating meals around, or for impromptu sex, or for family arguments, or a mixture of all three. But it remains essentially an inanimate piece of wood. 'The story of a table' is an old and hackneyed idea, rather like a Victorian school essay on 'The story of a penny piece'. I could not summon up any interest in the characters or the story, despite the best efforts of the cast and of Ronder as their amanuensis.