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Frankland & Sons: like father, like son

Posted on 24 January 2012 by Jessica Wilson

Never work with children or animals. That’s how the adage goes, but what if the child in question is your own flesh and blood? Father and son duo John and Tom Frankland tackle family dramas head on in new show Frankland & Sons, currently playing at the Camden People’s Theatre . Both joke that the best thing about keeping it in the family is when the other buys the drinks in the bar afterwards, but John also confesses that he’s learnt things while working with his son. Exploring family history and heritage, this most personal of projects recreates the past with thought-provoking honesty, revealing secrets that have changed their future together.

For Tom, the decision to work with his father on Frankland & Sons was prompted by our inheritance of a suitcase of letters, written by my grandparents between 1921 and 1946. I suggested that if we imagined there might be the context of a show contained in them, I could justify spending a fortnight with [my father], reading them. We found more than enough material!”

How, then, did they go about shaping this plethora of stories? “We made the show in a relatively short number of weeks, spread over two years,” Tom explains. “We began by reading the letters and then spent time with just the two of us in a room, putting together some material”. This eventually amounted to eight hours’ worth of narrative. They performed the work at Forest Fringe during the 2010 Edinburgh Festival before getting a residency at the BAC and spending some time at Beaford Arts in Devon, trialling the work before a regional audience as well as a London one.

It was at this point that father and son realised they needed the outside eye of a director to help them strip the show back to its emotional core. So began their partnership with director Jamie Woods. Tom remembers: “We had generated so much material and couldn’t see any more what was the most important”. John agrees, stating that they both “loved the eight hour show and needed an input that saw the work theatrically and not personally”.

Finding a professional distance was always going to be difficult for such a deeply personal project. “The entire piece is very much shaped by our relationship, by our shared sense of humour and by various memories that we have of our lives together,” bsays Tom. John affirms, “Our relationship is woven throughout the piece”. This is what makes the show different, as the duo hoped that “the audience would be intrigued by us performing together and we didn’t want to hide that”, emphasising their offstage connection by recreating their relationship onstage. Tom explains that  “there isn’t really a plot to speak of. It was clear to us from early on that we didn’t want to describe just the life of Len (my grandfather) but to explore the things that the letters threw up about our own lives and relationship.” So long spent with close family members can often spell disaster, but Tom says, “We have definitely become closer during the making of the show. There is something about working together professionally and as equals that has enabled us to meet each other as adults.”

Theatre is not an alien world for either father or son. The Franklands are a family of theatre-makers, with Tom’s stage debut marked by his performance, aged two, as a dancing bear in a pantomime John was directing. A retired drama teacher with a history of appearing regularly on the amateur circuit in Cornwall, John has “enjoyed a long involvement with ‘am dram’, school productions [and] youth theatre”. He has been more or less involved with theatre for all his life and even had his own company staging plays for a time. “In all of these,” John remembers, “Tom was involved, having stated at an early age that he was going to act. This is the first time I have stepped into his world.” A daunting prospect, then, to step onto the professional stage? “I feel very fortunate that each jump forward [in the development of the show] was accompanied by some generous support and comments, which certainly helped my confidence.”

Since his dancing bear days, Tom has graduated from university and opened up the collaborative father-son relationship to a completely new level through Frankland & Sons. Tom recalls that since he became a professional performer, the opportunities to work together have seemed fewer. However, it is this most intimate of stories that brought the two men together in a partnership woven with trust and love. A play that is about them both has united them both, with John commenting, “it is a joy to spend time with your adult son. It is even better to create something together and a thrill to perform it.” The experience of performance has bound them together in a new relationship; a meeting of minds.

Despite the difficulties of finding opportunities to work together, both feel it is natural that they are now collaborating on the show. Tom muses,“It always felt to me sad that I wasn’t part of a family business – if we were butchers or bakers or plumbers, it would be very natural to follow on into the family business. But on reflection, this is what we have always done through our shared love of theatre and performance.” As well as having the reassuring support of such a close family member in what can be a lonely and daunting industry, “the real benefit is that you have a huge amount of trust and mutual respect for one another”. Tom jokes: “You can read each other well because we have known each other for 33 years!” Father and son both agree the show’s intensity is defined by their innate connection.

“There have been a few moments,” Tom reflects, “where we have been talking about extremely personal matters, like break ups or the relationship Dad had with his parents, but having made the decision to be open and to share our story, we have been able to trust that… it is necessary.” In light of television’s Who Do You Think You Are? success, stories of geneaology were sure to be a hit on stage. But Frankland & Sons is as much about the audience’s own stories as Tom and John’s history. They invite audience members to honestly reflect on their own stories and various skeletons in  closets. As Tom states, “We aren’t trying to say that our family is more interesting than anyone else’s, but to hold a mirror up to the audience and allow them to think of their own families.”

As well as redefining his relationship with his son, John immersed himself in the challenge of completing “the journey from an idea to performance in front of an audience”. A personal and theatrical triumph for John, then, but both confirm that the real benefit of the project has been their renewed connection, with Tom realising they are now “appreciating each other as people… It is nice to discover that we can work so closely together without falling out!” A loyal team, they place each other’s best interests at the forefront of their work. For the Frankland & Sons duo, it is the trivial things in life that mean the most. Their advice for capturing the perfect family balance? “Be respectful and brave and have fun!” And what could be more rewarding than to create and perform with your own family? Perhaps the greatest testament to this is Tom and John’s joint affirmation that Frankland & Sons is “the best thing we have done together.”

Frankland and Sons plays at the Camden People’s Theatre until 28 January. For more information and tickets, please see the Camden People’s Theatre website. The show will then tour. For more information, visit Frankland and Sons.

Image credit: Keir Cooper

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