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Some fine physical theatre but this play never really takes off

2017 July 10
by Paul Vallely

The-cast-of-Fatherland-photo-by-MANUEL-HARLAN-4

Fatherland

Royal Exchange, Manchester

3 stars

You get a hint of what you are in for before the play starts. The Royal Exchange theatre sits like a 20th century space module in the middle of Manchester’s magnificent cavernous Victorian cotton trading hall. Around it are tables where the audience can have a drink before the show. Before Fatherland actors wander round removing their granddad overcoats and hurling them to the ground or dropping them from the gallery staircase. One howls softly like a wolf spying the moon. You are in the world of self-conscious artifice.
On it goes. The three actors who take the stage are playing the three authors of the piece – playwright Simon Stevens of Curious Incident fame, musician Karl Hyde of Underworld and Scott Graham of the physical theatre group Frantic Assembly. For this new work, commissioned by the Manchester International Festival, they travelled to the home town of each of them – Stockport, Corby and Kidderminster – to compile a portrait of modern fatherhood. The play begins with them explaining their interview and editing process to one of their interviewees who accuses them of coming north from London to exploit ordinary people as a poncy metropolitan self-indulgence. This is to be art about Art.

The problem is that it’s not just self-referential but predictable. Questions about the first memory of your father, the job he did, how he died, the birth of your own first child, yield the odd gag and the occasional insight but they are few and far between in this celebration of masculine emotional constipation. The off-and-on overcoats represent the rejection and re-embrace of the bond between father and son but the doffing is repetitious and unfruitful.

The play eventually changes gear when things begin to go wrong for the three authors but then their confrontations of their own childhoods are conventional and difficult to milk for transcendent significance.

The highpoints of the evening are some fine pieces of physical theatre and Hyde’s dark low-register songs – which echo with the menacing rhythms of industrial machinery, soldier’s warsong and football chants – and which enable the men to venture into heightened emotional territory outside the range of everyday masculine conversation. But there is too much talk and not enough music.

It’s a shame as there are some very strong performances from Tachia Newall as the young father who never met his own Dad, Deka Walmsley as the repressed Geordie, Nick Holder as the man followed in his father’s footsteps up the fireman’s ladder, and Joseph Alessi as the brutal ‘Pscycho’. David Judge captures the stuttering frailty of a man recovering from mental ill-health .

The play soars for a moment as Neil McCaul swoops around the stage on a wire to express the elation an older man recalling his bursting pride at the birth of his son. But otherwise this is a creaking piece of machinery which lumbers self-importantly down the runway and then never takes off.

review written for The Independent

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