Fatherland review – three dads and a ladder give a voice to angry Britain

This thrilling play about three sons who go home to their dads – and their childhoods – shows verbatim theatre’s power to heed the forgotten

The scene: a wine-bar close to the Royal Exchange, Manchester. Two critics have just emerged from a verbatim piece, Fatherland, staged as part of the Manchester international festival. One critic, a baggy-eyed oldster, is called Michael. His younger, sharp-witted colleague, is Helena. They have form in that their previous encounters have been recorded in a book called The 101 Greatest Plays.

M: Well that was nice and short at 90 minutes and I’ll say this for it: as verbatim pieces go, it was a damned sight better than Committee, which I’ve just seen in London, in that it really does integrate text, movement and music. Simon Stephens, Scott Graham and Karl Hyde not only put themselves into the story but genuinely seem to have worked as a team. I just had one problem. The piece is based on interviews about fathers and sons conducted in the creators’ respective home towns – Stockport, Corby and Kidderminster – but I didn’t feel it told me anything new. It also ducked the fact that we are, in most cases, the product of two parents, not one.

H: Funny you should say that. I thought I’d object to the predominance of testosterone but I found it a change from all the mother-daughter plays I see so often. It’s also thrillingly staged. There’s one brilliant scene where the guys interview a fireman called Mel. His story about having to retrieve the corpse of an old man who’d been left alone to melt into the bedclothes in his flat is overwhelming in the light of what happened at Grenfell Tower. The director Graham also makes marvellous use of stage space by showing Nick Holder as Mel ascending a ladder levered out of the stage floor, and Hyde’s music, as it does all evening, perfectly echoes the rhythms of people’s speech.

M: I’d agree, that episode was the highlight, but it’s only tangentially related to the main theme. I also felt I knew all about the sense of guilt, shame and lack of emotional contact that characterises many father-son relationships. And, although the piece is called Fatherland, it tells you hardly anything about Britain as a whole.

H: You must have cloth ears! Mel describes the referendum as “an opportunity to kick Westminster in the bollocks”, another character rails against the PC nature of modern Britain, and there’s a constant sense of wrecked lives and economic struggle. I actually learned a lot more about who and what we are than I did from that National Theatre post-Brexit play, My Country: A Work in Progress.

M: Fair enough. But I feel you can’t generalise about the supposed crisis in masculinity or the state of the nation from a handful of interviews carried out by a trio of guys making a rare visit back to their home towns.

H: Gotcha! That’s exactly the point made by one of the characters they interview, Luke, who is sceptical about the whole project, wants to know much money they’ll make, and finally withdraws his support.

Nick McCaul as Graham and Bryan Dick as Karl.
Neil McCaul as Graham and Bryan Dick as Karl. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

M: Strange you should mention Luke, since I wondered how genuine he was. I assumed he was an invented character planted in the story to voice all the stock objections to verbatim theatre. At one point, he says: “Why don’t you just make it up?” and that thought frequently crossed my mind. I kept thinking of all the plays that tackle father-son relationships with much greater depth and intensity than you will find here. Just think of great American plays such as O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night or Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Or, if you want a local example, how about John Mortimer’s A Voyage Round My Father? And I learned far more about masculine violence and emotional cowardice from Stephens’s earlier play about Stockport, On the Shore of the Wide World, which I saw at the Royal Exchange in 2005, than I did from this collaboration.

H: But you’re falling into your usual trap. Fact doesn’t preclude fiction and verbatim theatre doesn’t stop people staging the great classics. What is refreshing is to hear the language of real people on stage, and even an old grump like you must admit this piece is beautifully done. There’s a great moment when Hyde’s dad, played by Neil McCaul, says his son wasn’t a “pretty child”, and then gets swept up in the air as he describes his thrill at seeing him on stage.

M: I’m not denying the piece is excellently staged, I loved Hyde’s music and all the actors – including Ferdy Roberts, Emun Elliott and Bryan Dick as the show’s co-creators – are very good. But I still didn’t feel as emotionally moved as I have been by imaginative works about fathers and sons.

H: So how many stars would you give it?

M: Three, I think.

H: I’d give it four for the boldness of the concept and the skill of the execution.

M: Perhaps we should split the difference. Now how about one for the road?

• Fatherland is at Royal Exchange theatre, Manchester, until 22 July. Box office: 0161-833 9833. The Manchester international festival continues until 16 July.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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