Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Theatre review: Fatherland

Frantic Assembly’s verbatim piece Fatherland is the brainchild of director Scott Graham, composer Karl Hyde and playwright Simon Stephens, who come from Corby, Kidderminster and Stockport respectively. Their idea was to return to those home towns and conduct a dozen interviews with local men about fatherhood – most of them fathers themselves, all of them at least having something to say about their own fathers. The resulting play puts their thoughts and memories on stage in a text put together by Stephens, sometimes set to music by Hyde, and brought to typically physical life by Graham, but the actual interview process and creation of the play ends up being as much if not more of what it’s about: As well as casting actors to play their subjects, the trio put versions of themselves on stage too, with Nyasha Hatendi’s Simon and Declan Bennett’s Scott leading the interviews while Mark Arends’ Karl absent-mindedly records everything in the background.

Recorded before the Brexit vote, the result is a mesmerising but in many ways flawed portrait not just of masculinity but how it fits into these often forgotten towns in the middle of England.

This is most obvious in the case of Alan (Joseph Alessi,) chosen as a subject because of his reputation as a psycho, whose main memory of his father is of visiting him in Saudi Arabia and being taken to watch a stoning, and who unsurprisingly has grown up with twisted ideas around race and religion. Mel (Michael Begley) is a fireman who followed his father into the service, and has nothing but respect when he talks about him; but his speech is more focused on a grim call-out to help dispose of a body that’d been dead for six weeks, the man’s sons not having contacted him in that time. Simon’s best friend Daniel (David Judge) has dealt with serious mental health issues which he feels his father was unable to cope with, meaning it put a distance between them.

Jon Bausor’s simple revolving metal set, Jon Clark’s concert-like lighting and Hyde’s industrial music make the simple stories highly dramatic, with a feel of the towns’ lost manufacturing past, and Graham, with choreographer Eddie Kay, has the men move from the interview room to flights of fancy as they fly around the stage, climb ladders and sing their answers like a football chant. But the play highlights some of its own limitations in the form of Luke (Craig Stein,) who throws the creatives’ questions back at them, refusing to answer because he suspects their trip is little more than poverty tourism. Given that they’ve put themselves centre stage, there’s no arguing against the trio’s interviewing of other men ultimately being about their own feelings, and although this is eventually acknowledged it might have been better to actually write something about this rather than skirt around it with stories that don’t reveal that much.

Because there’s something flawed about the way they’ve collected their source material – for me the most shocking revelation was the fact that the whole show was put together from only twelve interviews (my actual thought was “Twelve interviews? Alecky Blythe does that before breakfast!”) Some of the subjects, like Alan, have been chosen specifically because of the kind of attention-grabbing response they know they’ll get from them, and the writers know the conclusion they want to come to before going in: Fathers and sons who find it hard to express their love for each other but feel it strongly nonetheless - the only one of the creatives’ fathers to appear is Hyde’s (Neil McCaul,) who’s suspended off the ground with pride at his son’s birth, but can count the moments he’s really connected with him since on one hand. Fatherland is atmospheric and impressive, but it doesn’t feel as if it’s really uncovered anything new, and wasn’t really looking in the first place.

Fatherland by Scott Graham, Karl Hyde and Simon Stephens is booking until the 23rd of June at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

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