Fatherland

Scott Graham, Karl Hyde and Simon Stephens

Manchester International Festival, Frantic Assembly, Royal Exchange Theatre, Lyric Hammersmith and LIFT

Royal Exchange Theatre

From 05 July 2017 to 22 July 2017

Review by David Chadderton

It's an intriguing concept: take a successful playwright, theatre director and pop composer back to the places where they grew up (Stockport, Corby and Kidderminster) to speak to men in the area about their relationships with their fathers.

Fatherland is a play that tells the story of its own creation, very reminiscent of Gregory Burke's Black Watch (for which director Scott Graham's Frantic Assembly partner Stephen Hoggett was assistant director in the National Theatre of Scotland production). This is certainly no Black Watch, but it opens in the same way: with actors playing the show's creators—Simon Stephens, Scott Graham and Underworld's Karl Hyde—interviewing their potential subjects.

In their theatrical representations, Karl (Bryan Dick) is the nerdy one who doesn't always pay attention and is more interested in the recording equipment than in what people say; Simon (Ferdy Roberts) is an out-of-touch academic-type and a bit of a wimp; Scott (Emun Elliott) is the cool one who remains aloof. Scott Graham directed the play—I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

All three are sympathetic, affectionately drawn characters, despite their flaws, but the nature of the show means that it is basically a series of anecdotes, curated and arranged in a pleasing order, without an overarching plot. Some are related in short scenes with the creators, others more as monologues, sometimes multiple monologues crossing one another. Some stories are turned into songs with Graham's distinct movement combined with Eddie Kay's choreography, whereas other songs use significant lines from speeches we have already heard as a repeated mantra.

Going against the verbatim pieces, the character of Luke (Ryan Fletcher), presumably an invention by Stephens who mentions his reservations about verbatim theatre in the programme, is introduced as a sceptical interviewee. He questions the nature of verbatim theatre itself and how truthful it can be if the words of the subjects are edited by the writer and not presented in full. A very astute point.

Luke then questions the motivations of the writers in creating the play, first asking how much money they will earn for it, then asking them to admit what they expect to find by going back. This leads to the creative trio relating stories about their own relationships with their fathers, but Luke isn't impressed; he tells them that if they are looking for some greater truth there is no such thing and it's just stories—or as Homer Simpson put it, it's just a bunch o' stuff that happened.

I'm with Luke on this; it's an accurate assessment of the play as a whole, if a fairly obvious one. There seems to be an underlying message that men are unable to share their feelings with or about one another, which none of the men really does. They sometimes tell stories that remember emotions, but there is still no real sharing of feelings, just talk.

It was interesting on opening night to have two of the creators in my eyeline in the audience, one on either side, so I could watch their reactions to their fictional selves. Stephens laughed a lot in an embarrassed sort of way, sinking further into his chair; Hyde sat calmly with a slight smile like he was trying to play it cool when his mum had got his baby photos out to show to his new girlfriend.

It's a slickly produced and entertaining hour and half that perhaps at times got me thinking how I would have answered some of those questions myself, but I can't say it stirred up my emotions at any point. Fiction can do that so much better.