Bush Theatre, London – until 21 March 2020
Guest reviewer: Melinda Haunton
First things first: get a ticket for this. It’s a wonderful, wonderful show. But I guess you want a bit more of a review than that, so here goes.
Temi Wilkey has written a brilliant first play, which grabs you even though you’ve probably seen many of the components of The High Table before. You’ve seen two young people announce their upcoming marriage, to family concern and wedding task stress which rock their relationship. You’ve seen coming-out scenes, the ripples they cause, and the tragedy that sometimes arises. You’ve probably also seen stories about Them Up There (ancestors in this case, perhaps gods in another play) messing with the fate of Us Down Here.
What sets it apart? Firstly, you haven’t seen these stories star a couple of young black women. Leah is out, supported by her family (who don’t figure) and sure of herself, loving Tara. Tara’s story is tougher; her family is the one unhappy with the marriage, and it is her ancestors whose debate on whether they can bless Leah and Tara’s wedding primarily drives the plot. A lot of action is at the ancestral plane, but we immediately believe in these women as a couple, bickering, loving and horny all at once. They register as real humans, with plenty of life off the stage. We want them to be happy – what could be more important than that?
Secondly, it’s very well-constructed. Wilkey weaves her themes together expertly, giving each thread its due, the ancestral past and the hoped-for future. Wider issues figure too. There’s rage about colonialism and how it severed understanding across generations. There’s acknowledgement of how being bi means constantly coming out, if your loved ones think you could just opt to live a straight life. There’s anger about the difficulty of immigration, and the way family judgements can leave others in danger.
These big topics aren’t lectures, but they needed to be in here; they are part of Tara’s family story. Amidst all this, which lingered with me on my journey home, I mustn’t forget to say it’s an incredibly funny piece. There’s plenty of space to feel anger, sadness and hope. But Wilkey keeps making us laugh, from the first moment of ancestral bickering to the brilliant curtain call (I hope that wasn’t just for press night).
The cast also set it apart. I started out especially admiring Ibinabo Jack, doubling the very different characters of loving Leah and distinctly stroppy ancestor Adebisi, but Cherelle Skeete’s vulnerable, defiant Tara grew with the plot to win my heart. The ancestors (who double as living relatives) are wonderful; David Webber as a pair of relatively emollient men, who still have space for deep emotion, for good and ill; Jumoké Fashola perfect as Tara’s judgemental mother, but soaring as the oldest ancestor Yetunde, whose story pivots the production. Stefan Adegbola as Teju has a harder role to sell, one I won’t spoil, but he brings a wonderful restrained anger to some critical moments.
Design and sound are excellent. Natasha Jenkins’s layered, earthy set still glitters enough to host a wedding or an afterlife, and she uses simple tweaks to costume fabrics to indicate shifts between the doubled characters. Mohamed Gueye, on stage with his drums as a musician but also co-composer with sound designer Enrico Aurigemma, gives mood and commentary to the action. He isn’t quite a sixth character, but he contributes much to the overall feel.
In conclusion, I’d like to thank the audience member ahead of me at the exit who said to their friend, “I knew it would be great, but I didn’t know it would make me feel EVERYTHING.” Because that’s pretty much where I am with The High Table. Go. It’ll make you feel everything.
The High Table is at the Bush Theatre till 21 March (tickets £20, access pricing available), and at Birmingham Repertory Theatre 25 March-9 April.