Vault Festival preview: Father’s Son

Welcome to another preview from this year’s Vault Festival.

Father’s Son is a new play by James Morton, directed by Carla Kingham. It runs in the Crescent at The Vaults from 25-28 February. Book here.

I asked James to describe a bit more about his play. My thanks to him for his time.

How important is the working-class voice in this play?

The working class voice is really important in this play and in everything that I write. I feel like class is one of the biggest barriers to accessing theatre and so much theatre is made without, what I would call, real normal working class people in mind. Everything I write is always written with us in mind whether the play is specifically about class or not.

In the context of the play there are a few factors that I think are inherently part of living and growing up in a working class area. These would be: the grafting and striving for something better, the way they navigate their relationships and the extend of how toxic the masculinity is.

Women’s voices have been very prominent in this year’s Vault Festival, and your play is very focused on the father and the son. Was it a deliberate choice to exclude the female perspective in your piece?

Father’s Son was actually born from two big questions: How do I write a feminist play as a man? And how can I write a play about why the biggest killer of men under 50 is suicide? 

I initially struggled with this and in the first couple of drafts of the script there was a female character. As I was working on the script my thoughts crystallised more clearly into a question of:  why do men make men the way they are so that they do the things they do to women? 

I realised that including a female character to just serve a male narrative would not be right. The play was clearly about toxic masculinity and toxic masculinity in it’s purest form between father and son – it was a male story. Rather than looking at the issue from an outside perspective I had to look at these characters in isolation from women.

I had to go inside this very male environment from the inside out, finding empathy and love in these despite the things they do in order to fully explore why they do the things they do. Through the play the audiences sees how damaging the lack of a female figure is when the character’s are struggling with masculinity.

In the production I knew that we needed female voices in the room which is why the majority of our team (other than myself and the actors) are women, including our director. A female perspective was needed on the work but the work needed to be about masculinity in its purest form and and therefore be about fathers and sons.

Kenny Fullwood and Mark Newsome in Father's Son
Kenny Fullwood and Mark Newsome in Father’s Son

James, you were the youngest writer ever to be shortlisted for the Tony Craze Award, which is really exciting. It must have given a real boost to your writing, so where do you go from here?

It was incredibly exciting. I picked up the phone and was like ‘What? No way, you’ve got the wrong guy. Are you sure?’ I was so grateful for the whole thing and it’s boosted my confidence in writing and my position career wise definitely.

After this run of Father’s Son we’re looking into touring it to small venues and non-theatre spaces in the Midlands and the North – taking it to the communities it was written for which I am incredibly excited for.

In terms of my writing I’m hoping to develop my relationships with theatres so that I can develop my writing. I’m planning on finishing play number two this year which I was wrestling with most of last year after having a short play version of on at the Arcola Theatre.  

I won’t give too much away but it’s more abstract: set in a wood with a young man and a old woman with elements of magic realism. Ideas for play three are also swirling in my head. I’m pretty sure it is going to be a one woman show. This year it’ll just be getting time and space to write and develop these bigger ideas.

Father’s Son covers a five decade span in a former industrial heartland. How do the working and political changes in Stoke during that time inform your writing?

They can’t not. They sort of seep into the cracks of the play and infect the characters and the situations in less obvious ways. The play is a triptych – each act a 20 minute scene in real time. The relationship between father and son in the first act set in the 70s has completely different rules than the second act set in the early 2000s.

The advances in social progress and political changes allow for different ways in which the men can talk to each other but the key issues still remain throughout. The play shows these issues in microcosm but I think the are representative of a bigger picture.

Each scene does depict the attitudes and way that men would talk to each other in each of those eras in what I think is a pretty accurate way.

This play is described as deeply personal, looking at unresolved trauma, toxic behaviour, and poor mental health. How much of it is true and how much invention?

It’s a tightrope walk between invention and truth. The play is not in any way autobiographical in terms of fact that none of it happened to me and my Dad isn’t any of the Dads in the play.

The emotional truths however are definitely there. I was aware of lots of violence at school and when out socially growing up, there was definitely things to deal with personally in terms of my own perception of masculinity and I have struggled with anxiety and depression and still do. 

Some of the stories people tell in the play are slightly fictionalised versions of things that I witnessed, was told or was aware of, but the main plot of the play is completely fictional. 

The crux of it for me is that I think all or most men wrestle with this idea of perceived toxic masculinity and toxic behaviour. Men, on the whole, find it much more difficult to talk about their mental health. Men also, on the whole, end their own life a lot more frequently than women do.

The play takes all of the feelings, trauma and toxicity that all men experience in some way and shows what can happen if there is no communication these problems are left to fester and get as bad as they possibly can.

Why did the Crescent at the Vaults appeal as a venue? And what has it been like planning for the festival?

I initially thought the play would be more suited to an intimate, small space that would allow more of a sense of claustrophobia between the audience and actors but Vault insisted on the larger space.

Looking at it now I think it’s exciting to see theatre which is not ‘showy’ and is very pure and minimalistic: completely relying on the writing and the very intimate performance of the actors to fill that space.

The actors we have are incredible and I’m really excited to see them both take on the challenge of this big room. The play was always written with the idea of pushing two actors to their limits and really treating them as proper artists who command and control the space. I think the space will be ideal for that.

Planning for the festival has been a bit of a crazy journey. We were given a super late offer at the beginning of December and the producer and director previously attached had to leave due to other work they had been offered in that space.

I essentially had an offer and a script and nothing else. In the space of two months we then had some funding, space, two fantastic actors, an unbelievable director and a team of people who are so passionate about making the play into something beautiful – it’s surreal but it’s been such a wild, beautiful experience.

Book for Father’s Son at the Vault Festival website.