Everyone is waiting for something in Temi Wilkey’s emotional debut play, The High Table. Tara and Leah are waiting for the former’s parents to confirm their attendance at their wedding, and Tara’s ancestors are waiting to move on to the afterlife after voting on whether to bless the ceremony.
“I don’t want a feud, they’re too lengthy,” bemoans ancestor Babatunde (acted with a hilarious impatience by David Webber). Unfortunately for him, that is exactly what happens. Tara’s parents refuse to attend the wedding, with mum Mosun (Jumoké Fashola) citing religion and a disappointment in bisexual Tara not having a heteronormative relationship. Tara’s initial, heartbreaking response is cut short as she leaves the dinner, but the powerful themes of erasure and parental rejection are heartbreaking in their prominence.
We see Tara (Cherrelle Skeete) and Leah (Ibanabo Jack) clearly shaken by the decision of Tara’s parents as they make preparations for the big day, with some sweet exposition about the beginnings of their relationship. Tara wants to move on, while Leah, quiet and minimalistic in her expressions, wants to discuss the in-laws’ choice. The hint that Leah may well feel that she is the problem is tragic, though for her to later be the one who feels she is rushing the relationship feels a tad implausible.
Their unease and conflict is amusingly explored through ‘first dance’ practice, Leah shuffling awkwardly as an enthusiastic Tara guides her along. As director, Daniel Bailey brings hyperbolic humour to these moments of tension, with Mosun’s nonsensical homophobic views presented in an exaggerated manner, making them all the more laughable.
Yet despite the glimpses into Tara’s predicament, neither her nor Leah feel like protagonists in the play. We spend a lot of time with the ancestors, whose going around in circles to ascertain a unanimous verdict is stalling both in terms of pace, and indeed the wedding they’ve been tasked with blessing. Meanwhile, back on earth, it’s soon established that Tara’s uncle in Nigeria, Teju (Stefan Adegbola), is gay, in a country whose laws punish homosexuality. In a conversation with his brother Segun (Tara’s dad, also played by Webber), Teju’s coming out is raw, powerful and devastatingly delivered by Adegbola. Much like Tara’s news of the wedding, the revelation from Teju is bluntly rejected from Segun, who refuses to offer his sibling financial support.
In all the exposition and set-up, the first half has the potential to feel confusing or slow, yet the development of flawed and broken characters pays off when their lives interconnect in the second act. Webber, who already stands out as Babatunde, is tragic in a confrontation with Tara, in a discussion which delicately handles Segun’s guilt at rejecting Teju. Elsewhere, Fashola as ‘chief’ ancestor delivers a compelling monologue on the connections between colonialism, religion and homophobia.
As the decisions of the ancestors finally start to connect to the real world (whilst just about managing to steer clear of literal deus ex machina), we see the two subplots merge in a beautifully directed scene involving Tara summoning and speaking to them, the outpouring of passion by Skeete breathing life into Wilkey’s impressive script. Although it takes some time to get to that point, The High Table is a moving debut play about family connections, perfectly tied together – perhaps in a knot.
The High Table is now playing at the Bush Theatre until 21 March. It will then transfer to Birmingham Repertory Theatre, running from 25 March to 9 April.
Production Images: Helen Murray.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch The High Table for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this review and all opinions stated are honest and my own.