Temi Wilkey’s new play is an entertaining night out – with diverting moments of domestic drama and comedy blended with a highly theatrical and musically-infused view from the gods (reminiscent of many a classical Greek production) – but frustratingly buries one of its most interesting aspects late in the second act and, when it finally gets there, transforms into sermon rather than story-telling. Half queer diaspora melodrama, half surprise Euripidean epic of colonialism, The High Table explores codified African homophobia (and, briefly, its origin as an imported and imposed product of colonialism), loneliness and family in a variety of ways; some of which work better than others.
In its gentle moments of a love story between Leah (who is given no backstory or context other than a northern accent, a law degree and dyspraxia) and Tara (who is the British-born only-child of Nigerian immigrants, Segun and Mosun), the play is sweet enough but the drama is located elsewhere. Ibinabo Jack plays Leah winningly but there isn’t much to this character. Does she serve any purpose other than to create the contrast of another lesbian of colour whose parents are apparently accepting of her sexuality, unlike those belonging to Tara (Cherrelle Skeete)? In fact, whilst we learn that Leah’s side of the aisle will be full of ‘her people’, we never get even a hint of the relationship this bride-to-be has with any of her family at all or indeed whether they’ve even met Tara and, if so, how that went.
The audience’s introduction to Tara and Leah coincides with Leah’s first introduction to Tara’s parents – which also coincides with the simultaneous announcement of the couple’s existence and their engagement. While we’re at it, the scene also serves as Tara’s coming-out as a lesbian (apparently previously masked with some vague references to bisexuality). Leah seems patient about the whole matter at the time and more understanding than Tara of Segun (David Webber) and Mosun’s (Jumoke Fashona) shock and rejection until (when the plot requires the wedding to be in jeopardy) Leah’s resentment about the awkward introduction emerges.
Whilst the Nigerian wedding gags get laughs and any rendition of sliding to Cameo’s ‘Candy’ is a crowd-pleaser, the pacing and plotting around the marriage story itself lacks grace and coherence. Could Wilkey have written an entirely separate rom-com about the pre-marital misadventures of Leah and Tara and finished it there and/or left it out of this play? I’d have preferred she started this play in the aftermath of the disastrous wedding announcement; commencing action amongst dramatic consequences, like Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, rather than having a mini-exposition and climax that isn’t actually central to the story. We already knew how the announcement of the engagement was going to go before it happened so why dwell on it or even stage it at all?
Whilst much of the first act clunkily centres around obstructions to a wedding of their dreams, we are treated to a dramatic turn just before the interval. The second act is much stronger and more interesting. We go to modern-day Lagos, where homosexuality is criminal and subject to police blackmail, and are offered depth to Tara’s emotional experience as well as that of her father and other family members. In the first act, the character of Segun is merely sketched, despite outstanding acting by David Webber. When he is thankfully given meatier material of a conflict and motivations of his own, Webber displays virtuoso prowess; offering one of the most exciting and pleasing aspects of this production. Likewise, Jumoke Fashola, in the double roles of Tara’s mother and Yetunde (the most senior god at the North Star), can hit every musical and comic note with seemingly infinite stage presence and vocal command. Alas, it takes more than two hours for us to get Yetunde’s backstory predicated on not only the acceptance but sacred status of same-sex relationships in pre-colonial West Africa. In a sort of spoken word poetic trance-meets-sermon, Yetunde tells a tragic tale of the ages and condemns the white man’s stigmatisation of African love. There can be no other word than ‘preach’ for how Fashola delivers her speech but it is beautiful preaching; the kind that elicits audible murmurs of agreement and cries of ‘preach!’ from the congregation. Here we find the play’s essential drama and catharsis; and with it redemption and acceptance, leading to a joyful opportunity to celebrate a wedding with music and dancing. Here we are entertained, uplifted and provoked to deeper thought. If only Wilkey had made this most vital point and exciting experience a central part of the play.
Review by Mary Beer
An epic family drama played out between the heavens and earth, The High Table is the hilarious and heartbreaking debut play from Temi Wilkey which opens at the Bush Theatre on 8 February (Press Night 14 February) and transfers to Birmingham Repertory Theatre from 25 March. The cast is Stefan Adegbola, Jumoké Fashola, Ibinabo Jack, Cherrelle Skeete, and David Webber, alongside musician Mohamed Gueye.
‘That’s actually what me and Leah came here to talk to you about. Look- there’s no easy way of saying this, but… Leah and I are getting married.’
The dresses are chosen, the venue’s booked and the RSVPs are flooding in. But Tara’s perfect Nigerian wedding to her girlfriend Leah is suddenly derailed when her parents refuse to attend.
High above London, suspended between the stars, three of Tara’s ancestors are jolted from their eternal rest. Can these representatives of generations passed keep the family together? And will Tara’s decision ever get their blessing?
Bush Theatre and Birmingham Repertory Theatre present
THE HIGH TABLE
By Temi Wilkey
Directed by Daniel Bailey
Set and Costume Design by Natasha Jenkins
Lighting Design by José Tevar
Movement and Associate Direction by Gabrielle Nimo
Sound Design and Composer – Enrico Aurigemma
Cast – Stefan Adegbola, Jumoké Fashola, Ibinabo Jack, Cherrelle Skeete, and David Webber
Musician / co-composer – Mohamed Gueye
8 February – 21 March 2020