Mike has the opportunity to have a child. But it’s complicated – his Belgian boyfriend Bert (who’s estranged from his father) isn’t that happy about it and their Greek flatmate Sofia isn’t any help. She’s preoccupied with finding a man who ticks all the right boxes but can’t shake the shadow of her larger-than-life dad. Wherever they turn, fathers and fatherhood are looking back at them.
Babakas has taken this potentially soapy premise and crafted an effervescent show. It twists autobiography, physical theatre and dance into something heartfelt and true. Drawing on diaries, home videos and photos belonging to the cast (loosely playing themselves), it captures beautifully the influence our fathers have on our lives as we eye the milestones they’ve set before us.
The central thrust of this company-devised piece (directed by Juan Ayala with dramaturgy by Brian Mullin) is the lasting effect on Mike of losing his father to illness as a teenager – the sense of responsibility this has inculcated in him to continue his family and his anger at the inadequate fragments of family footage that are all that remain of the man.
The play never falls back on easy sentiment, fully earning all of its emotional beats. For example, Mike’s memory of only being able to think about Daphne’s death in Neighbours when he’s taken to say goodbye to his father is both funny and sad, conveying the complicated mix of loss and uncertainty about how to behave inherent in grief.
Elsewhere, Sofia’s adored father is a Chaplin-esque silhouette, all silly walks and incessant chatter, projected on to the back of the stage. She is dwarfed by this exaggerated figure, behind which hides a man whose life – like everyone’s – has met with disappointment. When he literally shrinks at the news of his mother’s death, Sofia is able to be a grown-up for the first time.
These astute moments of comic surrealism are the lens through which we see more clearly: they are what lift the personal stories of the cast into something greater and richer than on-stage emotional self-exploitation. The piece never feels voyeuristic; we laugh along and recognise ourselves in Mike, Bert, Sofia and their dilemmas.
The production is full of images that gain greater emotional heft as they recur. A swoopingly graceful and poignant solo piece by Bert, a dancer, finds its echo in Mike jumping up and down in front of footage of his father doing the same thing in Africa. This is life as a continuum that makes families of people through time and circumstance.
Bert’s dances are intense and internalised -expressions of his relationship with his father, who won’t accept that he is gay. In a cleverly staged recreation of an excruciating Skype call between Bert and his dad, an over-enthusiastic Mike discovers that death is not the only thing that can sever a child from a parent.
Fathers define us in all the best and worst ways, staring back at us from the mirror while always just out of reach. As we get older, reaching benchmarks like being the same age as them when we were born, they become more familiar but also more distant. We look to them for guidance even as we reject their example.
From the opening scene, in which a hilariously forthright Sofia chats up men in the audience, to quieter moments at the front of the stage, this show breaks down the fourth wall and invites us in, rather than treating us as spectators to a private family album. It’s a mature, inventive and touching look at who we are and how we find our place.