Pros: A must-see performance by the hugely talented Sean Mahoney.
Cons: Fatherland is entertaining but largely impenetrable.
In Fatherland, the first of the evening’s double bill, the audience enters to the sound of a lone drum beating out a slow tattoo. Opposite the drummer stands a bagpipe player in full regalia, silent and backlit.
The show tells the story of choreographer and dancer Nic Green, and her attempts to unravel the relationship she never had with the Scottish father whom she met only once. Or so we glean from the programme notes. Without this piece of information it would be hard to interpret the combination of poetry, rhythmic chant and gaelic dancing that follows.
Green carries on a dialogue with the audience, who respond by reading projected words, “pronounced clearly and rhythmically”, according to the on-screen instructions. But the text, whilst being vaguely evocative, reveals very little to its readers; “We stood at the bar / for forty-five minutes / the fixtures were brass / the furniture green”.
Gradually, the rest of the drums – three tom toms and a bass drum – are brought into play, as the tattoo that accompanies the whole performance builds to a climax and is finally accompanied by the bagpipe player. Occasionally there are glimpses of familial questioning, “Do you have a moustache?” she asks; “No, you got that from your mother,” replies the audience.
Why does Green strip down to her tartan underpants? Why does she trace a chalk circle on the floor? There’s undoubtably poetry here, but the performance is hard to interpret for your average theatregoer.
The second half of the double bill at The Place brings us Until You Hear That Bell, another autobiographical piece created and performed by Sean Mahoney. Set entirely within a marked-out boxing ring, it starts with the bafflement young schoolboy Sean feels when first taken to a boxing club by his father, “One man hit another man in the face, and no-one even noticed.” With growing enthusiasm, Sean takes to the world of boxing and its rigorous training regime. Along the way we meet Sean’s pushy dad as well as a host of other characters – such as the trainer Johnny, a Scot who counts press-ups in French because he used to be in the French Foreign Legion.
The action takes place to the timing of a boxing clock, dividing the scenes into chunks of three minute bouts and one minute rest. It’s a punishing timetable to work to, but the performance is accurate to within a second or two of the bell that marks the changes. Some of the three- minute sessions feature re-enacted boxing matches, Sean narrating the process as he ducks and dives; some show him in training, again talking us through his routines; one scene has him skipping, faster and faster, all the while relating his narrative.
Towards the end, Sean relates how poor GCSE results mean that, unable to sit A-levels, he is sidelined into a BTec group – and discovers that he can do a qualification in performing arts. This is an extraordinary piece of work; funny, tragic and poignant, it turns an hour of monologue into an evening of poetic revelation. Sean Mahoney is a young actor and writer of serious promise, and this show is a real tour de force.
Authors: Fatherland by Nic Green, with Deborah Richardson-Webb, Until You Hear That Bell by Sean Mahoney
Producer: Battersea Arts Centre
Director: Until You Hear That Bell by Yael Shavit
Booking until: Fatherland has now completed its run, Until You Hear That Bell runs until 27th June.
Box Office: 020 7223 2223
Booking Link: https://www.bac.org.uk/content/35007/see_whats_on/whats_on/shows/until_you_hear_that_bell