Albert Einstein used to work in a patent office, reportedly because the mundanity and ease of the job allowed his mind to wander to more complicated concepts. Table tennis is one of those menial tasks – enjoyable certainly, but easy enough to participate in that the mind is given space to roam. Sam Steiner’s most recent work, A Table Tennis Play, let’s the characters thoughts do just that, raising questions and nagging ideas which they might otherwise keep to themselves, were the paddle not in hand. Walrus’s new production grips tighter and tighter, masterfully dragging the audience down into the insecurities and fears of the players.
Nobody writes dialogue quite like Sam Steiner.
In an underground bunker her family built during the war, Cath sorts through old items left there before the entrance was hidden. The house has since been sold to another family – a young tennis protégé, Mia, and her ill father. Lights flicker, flash and even threaten to fall down completely as tension builds between the two, complicated by Cath’s boyfriend Callum and the feelings he wears on his sleeve. Somehow, strangely, there is a connection between the two women, but why? What do these characters want from each other?
Nobody writes dialogue quite like Sam Steiner. The pace never dips unless deliberately making a point, and the ratio of character development to words spoken is heavily one sided. Zipping between hilarity and horribly affecting emotion, Steiner has a knack of making every single second count, leaving the unsaid hanging brilliantly heavy in the air. Such intercutting lines occasionally trip up the actors, who sometimes speak as if waiting for the next line to arrive rather than letting the naturalism of the words really strike. For the most part, however, the cast vie for the title of best performance. Playing Mia, Beth Holmes is excellent in her social awkwardness and slight menace, and Rosa Robson pivots through countless emotional changes as Cath. Cast in a similar role to Walrus’ previous show, Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, Euan Kitson doesn’t get as much chance to show off as the charming, insecure boyfriend. Nevertheless, he is captivating with what he is given, particularly in a moment of the play that indulges in a child-friendly listing game.
Shades of Pinter infect the play with a gripping, nervous energy, and Ed Madden works wonders with simplistic but intelligent direction. What is fascinating about A Table Tennis Play is trying to gauge what these characters want from each other, with unsubtle foreshadowing elements indicating darkness to come. It is a production that will leave wildly different impressions on those who see it, but themes of loneliness and affection are fantastically explored. Aside from an unnecessary epi-monologue, Walrus’s show rarely places a foot wrong, capitalising on the success of Lemons to deliver a delightfully unpatronising, and thrillingly enticing, production.