Table, the beautiful new play by Tanya Ronder, is the inaugural production in the Shed, the National's temporary replacement for the Cottesloe while the latter undergoes renovation.
The last word in state-of-the-art pop-up venues, it's a wooden structure, seductively red of hue and boasting four corner-chimneys, and it stands beside the main entrance to the building proper looking a bit like a giant's up-ended hen house and Battersea Power Station. Inside, the magnificent studio space of the auditorium (at once intimate and imposing) and the welcoming, cleverly mixed boho/bourgeois front-of-house (which is accessed seamlessly from the Lyttelton ground floor) send out stimulating contradictory signals – of classic been-here-forever timelessness and of a tingling sense of (so to speak) built-in evanescence.
Premiered in a splendidly conceived and acted production by Rufus Norris, who happens to be the author's husband, Table, which has benefited from extensive work-shopping, is a canny opener for a season in which the accent will be on shorter runs and more risk-taking than in the Cottesloe. The evening has a marvellous concentration of focus, with the audience on three sides of a rectangular dais on which the eponymous table – a solid piece of craftsmanship by a Lichfield carpenter to celebrate his marriage in 1898 – gradually acquires the knocks (the scar made by a coffin; the claw marks of nuns' finger nails; the long mad gouge made by a father in a moment's frenzy of distress when his son leaves for the Great War) that put a sort of human face on the object as it passes through six generations of the same family.
There's a play by Thornton Wilder, which had a rare revival in December at the King's Head called the The Long Christmas Dinner. Here, with the effect of time-lapse photography, four generations and ninety years are compressed into thirty minutes of a continuous speeded-up family festive (and not so festive) Yuletide feast.
Table is different from this in that it begins and ends in 2013 with a likeable brat in a flamingo pink tutu spouting Mandarin chinese and clearly the child of a surrogate mother. Elsewhere, irrigated by English hymns and African chants, the play movingly never resorts to over-patterning as it charts the genetic and psychological inheritance of the clan and intimates continuities and differences between, say, a colony of nuns in Tanganyika in the 1950s and hippy commune in Herefordshire a decade laster.
In a terrific cast, Paul Hilton is outstanding as a big game hunter and his troubled, roving son. A great start to the Shed's season.
To 18 May; 020 7452 3000