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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.

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

Throughout all this Stephens, Graham and Hyde are always present on stage in the form of Ferdy Roberts, Emun Elliott and Bryan Dick.

One of their interviewees, Ryan Fletcher’s Luke, operates as the show’s conscience. He continually interrogates the three makers about their process and their reasons behind their decisions when making the piece.

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 make a verbatim show? 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. But while the acknowledgement of a 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 idea that a lot of men of a certain generation and background aren’t very good at telling their sons they love them may not be earth-shaking but the use of movement and music turns these stories 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 wonderfully uplifting sequence, the men spill out of the Royal Exchange’s auditorium and into the foyer, singing as they go.

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

The show doesn’t dig deep enough into the ways in which masculinity can be damaging or how it might be disrupted. Mothers and wives remain secondary, or absent.

But this does not diminish the production’s 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 have to face life without them.

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