Fatherland review at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester – ‘moving and euphoric’

Nick McCaul (centre), in Fatherland. Photo: Tristram Kenton

For their contribution to the Manchester International Festival, playwright Simon Stephens and Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham and composer Karl Hyde – aka Underworld – conducted a series of interviews with men in their hometowns of Kidderminster, Corby and Stockport. The subject was fatherhood: men’s relationships with their fathers and the places that shape them.

They’ve stitched these interviews into a verbatim piece that incorporates group movement sequences and a thumping soundtrack.

Fatherland presents a collage of sons and fathers: a tough guy with a Begbie swagger who swears he’ll execute any man who harms his daughter; a man who never knew his dad, so his granddad filled that space in his life instead; another who raised his kids alone after his wife left him; a man who became a fireman, as his dad had been before him.

Stephens, Graham and Hyde are always present on stage in the form of a clean-shaven Ferdy Roberts, Emun Elliott and Bryan Dick. One interviewee, Ryan Fletcher’s Luke, operates as the show’s conscience. He continually interrogates the three makers about their process and their reasons.

Given that they all now live and work in London, what is it they hope to achieve by making a piece about men from these towns? Who is this for? Why verbatim? What’s the difference between editing material and lying? Have they really considered all the connotations of using a term such as “fatherland”? Luke accuses them of being self-indulgent – and the man has a point. While the acknowledgement of the piece’s problems doesn’t in any way cancel them out, it makes for a more thoughtful experience.

Luke becomes the catalyst for the show’s three creators to tell stories about their own dads. Stephens describes his own father’s alcoholism and early death and how that has shaped him as a playwright.

The use of movement and song turns material that, on its own terms, is not particularly earth-shaking – a lot of men of a certain generation and background aren’t very good at telling their sons they love them – into something genuinely moving and at times euphoric.

The cast performs on Jon Bausor’s rotating rectangle of rusting metal. The actors lift each other up, in one instance using a harness to create a moment of delicacy and catharsis. In another glorious sequence, the men spill out of the Royal Exchange’s lunar module auditorium and into the foyer, still singing.

Later, other men join them in song and the effect combines the communal uplift of the football chant with something more soaring and choral.

The show doesn’t knuckle down nearly deep enough into the damage of masculinity – the expectations to behave in certain ways: provider, protector, with emotional intelligence low on the list – or how this might be disrupted. Mothers and wives remain secondary, or absent.

But this does not diminish its emotional wallop. Most of the men spoken to have fathers who are frail or who have already passed away. The piece becomes a salute to these men, a reminder of the fragility of all our parents, and that one day we will face life without them.

Moving and often euphoric verbatim piece about the ties between fathers and sons