Under the direction of Robert Wolstenholme, Signal Theatre Company’s production of A Place at the Table was thought provoking, wittily funny and a celebration of young actors. The Tristan Bates Theatre is intimate, but the honest and loud laughter of the audience gave the impression of a much bigger theatre. The set and design, by Sam Spark and Christopher Hone, was fresh and the oversized painting of a television set on the wall showed the imposing presence of television. Notably, there was a table centre stage, which was both practical and seemed to represent the metaphorical table that the characters kept referring to.
The writing had a brilliant tempo, and the contrasts of character allowed sudden changes of pace and explosive outbursts, notably from the “wheelchair bound playwright” Adam, who is longing to be just “the playwright”. The other characters worked at a television company, and Eva Tausig was the nervous and eager to please trainee, Rachel. She did well not to over play the stereotype of the ditsy newcomer; instead the character created lovely moments of comedy as she crept into the room, desperate not to disturb anyone. She was being trained by Sammy to be a runner. Jacob Dunn skilfully marked the change in Sammy after becoming promoted by the top boss, James, who the audience never get to see, making him all the more ominous. The change in Sammy showed a man out for his own ends, seeking money and fame. This exposure of character and intention applied to the play as a whole as it cleverly peeled away the normalities of the work place: etiquette, respect, authority.
Christopher Tester as Adam honestly portrayed a man who clearly feels subjugated by his environment and by the people at this television company. The writer, Simon Block, offered insight into whether it is now acceptable to make a spectacle out of disabilities, just as Ricky Gervais has done with Life’s Too Short. The play looked at how people deal with disabilities, and the lengths people go to to prevent offence; the play opens with Rachel’s sincere apologies to Adam for “manhandling his handles”. It is followed by Adam forgetting Rachel’s name, but this doesn’t seem to matter at all. It begs the question: is there still stigma attached to talking about disabilities?
Kellie Batchelor (also Co-Producer), as script editor Sarah, accurately conveyed the state of mind many workers in high paid jobs; Act One ends with her applying her third nicotine patch and meditating on the one word “mortgage”. The character was openly hostile, and she appeared to be the source of Adam’s continuing misery and disappointment. Sammy explained the hierarchy of the company, explaining that Sarah was a serf sucking up to the lords. The theme of position and equality was summarised in one repeated phrase, “from one writer to another”, as Adam and Sammy try to advise each other.
The play teasingly deals with fragile subjects such as disabilities and equality, and yet draws on comedy so that the audience doesn’t quite know whether we are laughing with or at them.
A Place At The Table is playing at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 17 March. For more information and tickets see the Tristan Bates website.