Lucy Tomlinson on a cleverly staged but overloaded study of fatherhood

“Oh I’m up for it, I LOVE Nazi counterfactuals” said my friend when I texted him to come and see Fatherland with me. I had to let him down easy on the fact that this play by Karl Hyde (Underworld), Scott Graham and Simon Stephens was not in fact based on the Robert Harris novel of the same name, but was in fact about, well, as some of the characters at various points during play raise the question: what was it all about? What was the point of it all?

Ostensibly Fatherland is all about fathers. It’s about good dads and bad dads and drunk dads and absent dads. It’s about having a pint and going to the match and not being able to give your dad a hug. It’s not a story as such - one character describes it as ‘fragments’ or ‘shards’ – but a piece of verbatim theatre based on the testimony of men interviewed in the three creators’ home towns (Corby, Stockport and Kidderminster), sampled and spliced and deconstructed in much the same way as the lyrics on an Underworld track are.

The three creators, played by actors, face different men on stage and ask questions such as: what is your first memory of your father? The answers to which lead off in both obvious and surprising directions. In fact it felt like some stories were left in not because of their relation to the overarching theme but because they made a good peg to hang some rather amazing staging off – the set piece with the ladder being a case in point (it did look stunning).
But the play isn’t just about fathers but also land (the clue is in the title I guess) - about whether one can go home and what it really means. Stockport is set up as the punchline for a lot of affectionate jokes, which resonates well with the home crowd, but the fact that all the creators are from middling towns is an important factor (Kidderminster is good for getting to other, bigger places, according to one song).
The nature of verbatim theatre is also up for grabs as the character of Luke (played with subtly increasing aggressiveness by Ryan Fletcher) turns the table on the characters of Simon, Karl and Scott and starts to interrogate them about the nature of their project. If anything can be said to give this otherwise fragmentary work structure it is Luke’s increasingly probing questioning. In fact, it all seemed a bit too good to be true – that such doubts about artistic intention could be so perfectly articulated by one of their interviewees and provide them with a neat ending that would have otherwise been missing – so much so that I doubted Luke was a real subject.
All these thematic directions plus the stagecraft, musical experimentation and more made this a packed 95 minutes, maybe too packed. I won’t forget the Mary Poppins-inspired flying father in a hurry. And yes, like at least half the audience, I did text my own dad when I got home.

Fatherland plays the Royal Exchange Theatre until 22 July. Find out more about this year's Manchester International Festival via their website, or follow Confidential for more MIF news and reviews