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Fatherhood- Altered Skin

Patrick Studio, Birmingham 

27 October 2022

Reviewed by Katie Ryan

Altered Skin’s latest work centres on the stories of three fathers, separated by space and time yet connected by the common experience of navigating their role within the South Indian diaspora. 

Entering the auditorium, the audience is met with a simple set, scattered with a few items of wooden furniture and two plastic tubs of toys. Chimes play soft melodies, some I recognise as English nursery rhymes. Creator and performer Shane Shambhu enters in a cameo role and introduces us to his son, father, wife and father-in-law in a blend of bharatanatyam, monologue, mime and voiceover. This personal yet highly accessible style of physical theatre is Altered Skin’s hallmark. However, in this production, additional attention is given to accessibility for the hard of hearing, with comprehensive and stylised use of subtitles. This reinforces the inclusion of a deaf character, Raghavan, whose life journey, narrated in voiceover by his daughter, traces through Tamil Nadu, Singapore and Great Britain at the end of the British Empire. 

The third character embodied by Shambhu is Hari, a contemporary Londoner of South Indian decent; bereft of both his father and his heritage and struggling to connect with his mixed race adolescent son. The narratives of these three men progress in fragments. Alone on stage and supported only by voiceover, sound track, and a sparse set, Shambhu weaves the rich tapestry of their experiences and the people and places they encounter. At times props are elevated from their functionality: soft toys come to life, the table and chair become the steep hills of Kanyakumari. Shambu has a knack for creating theatrical magic with props, and might have capitalised more on this as some items, such as a long roll of paper - a craft task for a toddler and a metaphor for the child’s ‘blank canvas’ - felt discarded too soon. Raghavan and Hari are fully fleshed characters, presented with pathos in all their vulnerability and stoicism. Shambhu reflects on his own experience of fatherhood with candour, comedy and tenderness, his strength of feeling is clearly the driving force behind this production, yet he holds back somewhat from baring his soul in this cameo role.

With the natural confidence of a bharatanatyam soloist switching between roles in an abhinaya presentation, Shambhu’s great skill is to slide between characters with total conviction. Watching the instant transformation of physical and vocal personality is mesmerising. Peppered with comic moments, the pace of change keeps the audience engaged and working to fit the fragments of narrative together. Shambhu juxtaposes moments of light and dark, tenderness and rage in a striking way: the tiny fluffy lamb becomes a bullied child as three toy dogs surround it ominously, the roar of a man protecting his assaulted wife morphs into the roar of a father in a game of chase with his toddler. We are both moved and shaken by the emotional rollercoaster of the life of a father. 

Shambhu questions how best to raise his son, rejecting the traditional gender roles of his parents. He muses on the migrant experience common to both his father and father-in-law, and the rich yet complex multi-lingual heritage of his son. Language in all its forms, as a connector and barrier, is a central theme. English, Malayalam, Persian, German, Tamil, sign language, live speech, recorded speech, written text, bharatanatyam…the multiplicity is beguiling and overwhelming. The cacophony is powerful, but at times I yearn for some respite to appreciate the subtle power of the visual and non-verbal language of the performance. 

Although each narrative thread has some sense of resolution, this is incomplete, and rightly so - these are challenges and stories that continue from generation to generation. Clearly inspired by the deep love of his son, in Fatherhood, Shambu puts the challenges of modern parenting and the complexities of the migrant experience in the spotlight it deserves, and does so with intelligence, humanity and compassion. Touring widely in 2022 and 2023 I have no doubt this work will resonate with audiences across the country.