A gently ferocious show about the complexities of relationships, and how we insert ourselves into our chosen reality. Maggie Kelly reviews A Table Tennis Play:

Sam Steiner’s A Table Tennis Play is swarming with the unsaid, so delicately understated that the silences grate against the bone.

Table Tennis Play Underbelly Cowgate
Rosa Robson & Euan Kitson (image courtesy of The Other Richard)

Cath (Rosa Robson) has returned to her old house with boyfriend Callum (Euan Kitson) in order to box up her mum’s ancient possessions in an air raid shelter at the bottom of the garden – the place she died from a heart condition around 30 years earlier. While doing so, they are received by teenage tennis legend Mia (Beth Holmes), a lonely 18-year-old who idolizes both Cath and her relationship with Callum. So begins a bizarrely quiet, uplifting story about three unhappy people and their ways of avoiding reality.

Table Tennis Play Underbelly Cowgate
Beth Holmes & Rosa Robson (image courtesy of The Other Richard)

The beauty about Steiner and director Ed Madden’s relationship is the total trust they have in the intelligence of their audience. There’s little to no attempt at exposition, just a solid faith that in public capability to pick up snippets they let fall here and there and piece together the backstory ourselves. The famed Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, Steiner’s debut play, dealt with the limits of language in a dystopian world. Here Steiner seems to explore a similar theme, but in a far more recognisable reality.

Table Tennis Play Underbelly Cowgate
Rosa Robson (image courtesy of The Other Richard)

A Table Tennis Play is less about language itself and more about the suspension of communication – playing games to avoid making painful decisions. Callum charts his relationship with Cath through their first night together; their arguments; her coldness and his infidelity. Such escapism is quietly shown to be heavily flawed, haunted by the context and circumstances within which the couple play.

Table Tennis Play Underbelly Cowgate
Euan Kitson (image courtesy of The Other Richard)

The playing of table tennis itself becomes an act of suspending reality, of being present in the here and now, moving forward in time just as the table tennis ball plinks and plonks backwards and forwards but also comfortably caught within the plinking and plonking. Cath is aware that she is steadily heading towards the exact age her mother was when she died, down to the very seconds. Not that anything will happen when she reaches it, of course. But it’s a reality looming from the outside, darkened by the slow breakdown of her relationship with Cal.

And she doesn’t really want to feel that pain.

Table Tennis Play Underbelly Cowgate
Beth Holmes (image courtesy of The Other Richard)

It’s rare to find such a delicately-woven piece that feels comfortable in its naturalism, one that is completely happy to just be about people. A Table Tennis Play has no gimmick, no big movement sequences, no huge sound sections (although the subtlety of Richard Bell’s low thuds is incredible).

It’s just quietly beautiful.

★★★★★

A Table Tennis Play is now playing at Underbelly Cowgate until 25 August 2019. For more information or to buy tickets, please visit the festival website.