The making of theatre for and with real-life family seems to be hitting London’s fringe scene, if my theatre viewing of late is anything to go by. First was Rebecca Peyton’s Sometimes I Laugh Like My Sister at the Finborough Theatre in memory of her sister, and this is swiftly followed by the father and son piece Frankland and Sons at the Camden People’s Theatre by Tom and John Frankland. The nature of theatre deriving from family members is a tough one as it calls into question how much an audience can grasp the relationships in a given time, how much can be relived and for what purpose, and to put it bluntly, how much an audience can realistically care. The latter is usually less thought of when personal stories are weaved into theatrical joy.

Frankland and Sons sits somewhere in the middle, a piece that is too much of an in-joke, too much relationship between father and son, and perhaps not enough theatrical storytelling. It’s as if Tom and John Frankland half play their respective parts as actors, and the other as themselves, which is perfectly OK, but it’s a question of where the audience canĀ  engage with it. Frankland and Sons is a rough and ready production that doesn’t try to lift its audience into a state of storytelling, nor does it sit comfortably with being honest and heartfelt. It’s a piece that bobs in the waters of unknown, and this for some audiences will find it difficult.

In 2006, Auntie Barbara passes away suddenly leaving John a collection of letters from a time gone by. In a bid to connect and, ultimately, to tell his father the truth about his mother (and subsequently his aunt), Tom suggests they go through the latters together. Half told through the letters from an era gone by, through war and courting, through romance and hushed disguises, comes the Frankland’s story. On the timeline suspended above the performance space, various letters and ribbons mark the significant events. Portraits of father Len and mother Wyn hang on the back of the performance space, become a makeshift family tree – one that is not as simple as it originally seems.

Interestingly, the scenario of John being brought up to believe that his mother is actually his grandmother is one that is personal to me, too. The same was done in my own family when it was considered bad of a woman to have a child out of wedlock. It is not an easy subject to broach and one that seems to haunt the performance space through an unopened letter in Tom’s pocket. When it is finally revealed, it comes in the form of the “ideal made-up letter” that John hopes his Grandfather Len would have written.

Frankland and Sons, as a look into the dynamics of a family duo performing together and exploring their past, is a wonderful concept. Where the piece succeeds in taking its audience into the family secrets comes at the end of the piece, throwing much of the last hour into disarray. It’s poignant, of course; John’s “I always knew” is uttered with a sense of real knowing, but there is a desire for more. It feels as if the story has only just begun for this father/son relationship and whilst it is touching at times, I struggled to find the true empathy within the story. Although saying that, I’m unsure how much empathy can be found when John Frankland seems more the childlike figure than his son, with some wonderful exchanges of Tom bickering with his father.

In all, it’s a piece that begins, but doesn’t end yet. A piece developed upon memories that are poignant to their owners, but perhaps not so for the audience. Frankland and Sons is a dedicated piece, but perhaps better told elsewhere, in another medium… or perhaps not, for what better joy can be found in a piece that brings a father and son to play and tell together? I guess it’s down to the audience to figure out which side they will want to enjoy: from a distance, or from a personal inner moving emotion.

Frankland and Sons is playing at the Camden People’s Theatre until 28 January. For more information and tickets, please see the Camden People’s Theatre website.