Fatherland – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Fatherland at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Picture: Manuel Harlan

Fatherland continues at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 22 July (and also plays the Lyric, Hammersmith from 25 May to 23 June 2018 as part of LIFT).

Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩

The creative trio behind this innovative Manchester International Festival production set out their stall very early on.

Frantic Assembly co-founder and director Scott Graham, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time playwright Simon Stephens, and composer – and one half of pioneering 1990s dance duo Underworld – Karl Hyde have woven hundreds of hours of interviews with friends, family and acquaintances in their respective hometowns on the subject of fatherhood into a visually arresting play with music and movement, with lines chopped and moved around, but largely spoken verbatim by a 13-strong cast of actors.

In a decidedly meta move, Graham, Stephens and Hyde are also characters in the play (played, respectively, by Emun Elliott, Ferdy Roberts and Bryan Dick) and we see them meeting their subjects, conducting interviews and explaining the motivation behind the project.

Their aim is to create “something big out of many little fragments”, and although the final result isn’t quite as cohesively satisfying as it could be, it is it is never less than engaging, painting a scattershot portrait of modern manhood, as well as touching upon issues of mental health, alcoholism and the decline of Britain’s manufacturing industry.

When lines from the interviews are looped and turned into lyrics, backed by Hyde and co-composer Matthew Herbert’s music and Ian Dickinson’s soundscapes, the results are often hypnotic, providing the shows with its most effective set-piece moments, lit dramatically by Jon Clark on designer Jon Bausor’s wrought iron, cleverly rotating stage set.

These sections (which are song-like rather than actual songs) have the musicality of traditional folk, tinged with the anthemic, sing-along quality of Elbow’s Guy Garvey, as well as the trademark, terraces-style chanting of Underworld’s own hymn to rave culture, ‘Born Slippy’.

When the whole ensemble is involved the effect is electrifying and – when the 50-plus chorus of extras starts banging on the glass walls of the Exchange’s in-the-round performing space – verges on the frighteningly apocalyptic.

Only a story, about a fireman (Nick Holder) recovering a long-dead, putrefied body from a house, jars with its apparent randomness (even if it’s parting message is “always remember to visit your dad”).

The only real narrative thread is provided by one prickly participant (Ryan Fletcher’s Luke) who refuses to co-operate and continually questions the creative team’s motives, allowing the trio to answer their critics and any potential accusations of exploiting the interviewees and socio-political tourism.

This fourth wall-breaking device may be a touch too self-indulgent for some (as Luke himself suggests), particularly as it emerges that the driving force of the piece is an attempt by the creators to make sense of the relationships they had with their own fathers.

But while the disparate strands are never quite allowed to tie up, it is a considerable achievement nonetheless.

The implied central message that fathers are as much hampered by their own upbringings as they are by their own shortcomings and quirks has the messy ring of truth to it.

As does the idea, conveyed in sweetly delivered coda featuring a father (Tachia Newall) feeling guilty for swearing at his daughter, that young children have an almost inexhaustible capacity for forgiveness.

Chris Bartlett

www.mif.co.uk/mif17-events/fatherland/

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