It’s a rainy weekend in a country house outside London. In a dark room full of old stuff (including a ping-pong table), a woman and her partner are packing. They chat, they waste time, they seem to be hiding problems beyond jokes and casual comments. Enters the daughter of the owner, a young tennis prodigy; she tries to make small talk whilst appearing nervous and shy. This trio in A Table Tennis Play is somehow stuck in time, only able to advance a couple of moves in this long game of relationships.
The blurb states that Sam Steiner’s new play is about “how everything and nothing changes as people bat a ball”, with said ball being used for its designated purpose but also as a metaphor for remains of a past life and maybe a symbol for the words that jump back and forth between the people on stage. I wonder if the company had imagined the play with their venue in mind – because Big Belly, with its dark and humid walls, takes us right where the characters are: a confined place that can be both safe and dangerous, a prison or a refuge.
All actors give stunning performances, but it is the two women that really take centre stage in A Table Tennis Play. Their relationship evolves before our eyes, with twists and turns, games and painfully long silences. Sometimes it feels like they are negotiating, moving closer then further apart. Beth Holmes offers a delicate and precise interpretation, while Rosa Robson delivers a confident and detailed performance.
As for the writing, it’s game, set and match for Sam Steiner – who really comes into his own when writing relationships and naturalistic dialogue. A simple exchange turns into a fight, then a battle, then an innocent game or a pregnant pause. And we go again, match after match; tension builds and crumbles down, time after time. Maybe that’s why the few monologues, despite being beautifully written, feel a bit out of place, unable to keep up with the conversational bits.
Still, A Table Tennis Play remains worth watching. It gives us a small moment, a parenthesis where time seems to stop and the real world is left out. The characters are allowed to play out their relationships and test their limits, maybe say that thing, go for the kill, break or mend.