Our Fathers

“Astonishingly, they’re telling their actual life stories” – MATTHEW WOLFSON kicks off Easter Term’s theatre with a trip down memory lane, as reality and performance converge.

babakas cambridge junction matthew wolfson our fathers Theatre

Cambridge Junction, Wed 10th April 2013

Just as the lights dim for “Our Fathers”, an attractive, thirty-year-old Greek woman sitting in the audience starts to hit on the man next to her. Her come-on is none too subtle (“Some people find my accent really sexy”) and she seems more interested in making an impression than sparking a conversation, but she’s undeniably charming.

Meet Sofia, and over the next hour we find that her opening vignette perfectly captures her personality. She’s dynamic yet thoughtless, a tragio-comic figure who starts out every encounter confident but then walks away from man after man, afraid to find out how they really feel about her.

True to the title, Sofia’s a less ethnic version of her father, Dmetrius, who was a spontaneous child living on the Mediterranean until his father sent him to a German boarding school, where his spontaneity became a protective facade. Sofia’s often annoyed with her father because this happy act worked when she was five but has gotten old. “He can’t see reality,” she says again and again, easily pointing out in her dad the glaring flaw she’s oblivious to in herself.

Give or take some thematic clutter, this blindness is what “Our Fathers” is all about: how we’re shaped in ways we don’t fully appreciate by our parents, who are fallible human beings; and how deciphering their effect on us can make us fuller as individuals, and perhaps better parents. We watch this theme play out with Sofia and her two flat-mates, Bert and Mike, as they all grapple to come to terms with where they came from. Bert’s dad worked hard to boost his son into the middle classes, but can’t accept Bert’s sexuality. Instead, he insists, with scientific precision that’s both painful and funny to watch, that dance class was the “stimulus” that made Bert this way. Mike, about to adopt a baby, can’t remember much about his dad, who died when he was fifteen, several years after divorcing his mum – he feels that he’s made his way through life without a crucial guide.

Clearly, this is raw material and difficult to navigate, but it mostly works, thanks to Sofia, Bert and Mike. Astonishingly, they’re telling their actual life stories (complete with baby pictures) and are comfortable, funny and startlingly honest about it. They are members of the acting company Babakas, which “playfully mixes languages and disciplines to explore important social themes.” That’s a fancy way of saying that the audience should relax as they dance, talk, show movie clips, sing, hilariously impersonate their parents, and even occasionally seduce us to great effect. There are some beautiful lines, too, like when Mike suddenly remembers standing on his dad’s feet and dancing in their hallway: “Your effort and will were travelling into me and I didn’t have to decide” and, later, “you’re up in the sky, you’re something to aim for.”

But something grates about “Our Fathers”, and I think it’s that the performers want us to open up so badly that they try to manufacture “naturalness”, and it feels invasive. At the beginning of the play, right after we first meet Sofia, loud music starts blaring and Bert and Mike pop up holding signs with messages including “Be Yourself”, “We Must Remain Misfits” and “Yell”.

Mark comments that “I think they get the picture”, and well, yes we do, because it’d be hard to miss, but sloganeering won’t shake us into spontaneity. The performances take care of that.