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Father (Vader) review at Barbican Theatre, London – ‘absurd, astonishing and deeply moving’

Maria Carolina Vieira and the cast of Father (Vader) at the Barbican, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Father (Vader), which premiered in Europe in 2014, is the first instalment of Peeping Tom’s surreal family-based trilogy. It’s every bit as astonishing as the company’s maternal counterpart Moeder (performed at the Barbican last year), just as fraught with Freudian neuroses and deep-seated anguish, but with less of that show’s sloshing amniotic juice.

Father is set in an old people’s home that’s at once strangely off-scale (attenuated grey-green walls stretch up to improbably high windows) and grimly familiar in its mundane institutional detail: trestle tables, stackable wooden chairs, matted carpeting, an inexhaustible supply of soup. The residents’ antics are offset by the weirdly elastic contortions of the dancers who appear variously as relatives and carers.

The extreme malleability of these bodies – flipping like fish, skittering on their insoles and effortlessly folding knees about their ears – doesn’t simply draw attention to the extraordinary poetic capabilities of physical flesh in comparison to its inevitable regression and decay (in one harrowing sequence a babbling older man in sagging underpants is undressed, spritzed and wiped down by a blank-faced orderly).

These odd bodily torsions also suggest the yielding emotional reality between elderly parent and adult child; the inevitable pathos of role-reversal, the incomprehensible extremity of feeling provoked by the most seemingly-banal exchange about knees or walks in the park. Amid all this there are bursts of gloriously absurd comedy – a fractious figure popping out of a soup tureen, the brandishing of an outsized broom – that ingeniously lighten the emotional load.

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Absurd, astonishing and deeply moving dance-theatre piece about an ageing father