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MIF 2017: Stage: Fatherland

“The thing about Stockport is it’s never actually as shit you think it’ll be.”

In my opinion, truer words have never been spoken, and Fatherland, the new piece by Simon Stephens, Karl Hyde and Scott Graham that’s debuting at Manchester International Festival, deals in exactly this type of truth, amongst others.

Fatherland is magnificent. It’s a dynamic, exciting and unexpectedly physical piece of theatre, which through its verbatim style tackles numerous themes – class anxiety, identity, masculinity – with honesty and authenticity that’s often lacking in attempts by writers to craft faithful stories about those other than themselves.

In this case, ‘the other’, if the title hasn’t given it away, are men. They are young, old and from all across the UK, but mainly small towns on the outskirts of bigger cities. The play explores the complex relationships between fathers and sons. Set against a backdrop of continued industrial decline and stagnation, it shows these relationships, warts and all, refusing to shy from the contradictions that so often pepper them, from views on drugs to violence and love.

A lot happens in its 90 minutes or so running time. There’s impromptu dancing, an out-of-nowhere club scene and a ladder-top monologue delivered whilst being held aloft by costumed firefighters. Alongside this, the interruption and silencing of a character with mental health problems by the stronger, more overtly masculine voices offers a fresh interpretation of the mental health crisis facing men in Britain today. Fatherland is at once a damning indictment of 21st century toxic masculinity and a musical, with characters delivering their lines by seemingly spontaneously bursting into song. The rapid switches between voices creates a lightning quick pace that really should be too much, but the framing of individual narratives by the playwrights’ own anxiety about returning home to Stockport, wonderfully executed by a reversal of roles between interviewer and awkward interviewee, proves a successful anchoring device and offers a sincere look at Stephen’s own battles with his identity and roots.

The choir, made up of male voices sourced by open audition in Manchester earlier this year, offers another charming paradox. At one moment, they carry the songs out of the theatre and into the auditorium, extending the play’s offering beyond the confines of the theatre wall and helping to celebrate the joy that fatherhood can bring. But they too can turn aggressive, swelling and bellowing like a crowd at a football match, beating their way into the theatre and invading the stage.

Most impressive is the way the play manages to form well-rounded characters out of all of the voices it chooses to explore, no mean feat when there are about 12 to craft. It seems strange to say that there are men’s stories that still need to be told when almost all of history has been written by white people with an XY chromosome, but the tenderness, sweetness and vulnerability that is so often dismissed as not pertaining to contemporary masculinity is what is explored here and it offers a voice to, if not the voiceless, then at least the unvoiced.

It’s here where Fatherland really triumphs. Much like the oft-referenced thought-translator in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs – an unexpected inspiration behind the piece – it offers a window into the complex, contradictory, hidden world of male emotions and relationships: the ups and the downs; the love and the loathing; and the grim reminder that at some point the men in whose image we are supposed to be crafted will no longer be there.

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