by Hannah Rose
Tribute Acts is a bittersweet piece of autobio-theatre written and performed by Tess Seddon and Cheryl Gallacher from Theatrestate. Set against a space-age backdrop, Tess and Cheryl introduce their fathers via a pre-recorded video link. The dads look uncomfortable in their suits and ties. Their daughters are wearing spacesuits. The gulf between parent and child is obvious, and the unease is palpable.
Cheryl and Tess made Tribute Acts together after realising how similar their fathers both were — despite having never met. Both are stalwart socialists who held high positions in their fields of work: one was a headteacher, the other a solicitor. They’d both had dreams of saving the world (they didn’t). Their daughters both saw their own fathers as heroes in their younger years, only to have these same heroes let them down.
Philip Larkin’s caustic poem on parenting came to mind when I saw Tribute Acts at the Norwich Arts Centre on June 29th. ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad / they may not mean to but they do.‘ Tribute Acts is not quite as cynical as Larkin’s bitter verses, but the sentiment is certainly there. The women take turns in ‘interviewing’ each other’s dads, asking probing questions that, on the surface, appear benign and unobtrusive — ‘did you and Tess have a favourite place together?’ and ‘what is Cheryl’s favourite food?’ Their answers however reveal a painful truth — these dads don’t really know their daughters.
The personal, however, is deeply political.
Film footage from the 1990s runs along a screen at the back of the stage. Bill Clinton waves to an exuberant crowd and Tony Blair steps out of 10 Downing street ready to take the Left under the wing of New Labour and into a new millennium. Tess remembers accompanying her father to the polling station in ’97 to vote for Blair. The Tories will soon be out and the mood is hopeful; the men in suits won’t let us down. But they did, didn’t they? It wasn’t just the dads who turned out to be fallible.
Performed in the wake of Brexit and a constitutional crisis that sees us hurtling towards a conclusion none of us can predict, Tribute Acts feels eerily prophetic in its revisiting of those disenchanting decades. The question left hanging is: why do we put so much hope and faith in the people at the top, be they parents or politicians? Why do we trust a man in a suit? Politics/parenting is a shady deal: we start off in the best faith, to do right by those who look up to us. It’s easy to make promises, right? But it’s a long way to fall from that pedestal and the higher we raise our leaders (and our parents), the more precarious their promises become. The story of the Cameron/Johnson/Farage trio — to make pledges and then abandon ship when it starts to sink — is a lamentable paradigm of the blind faith we hold towards the powerful.
It wasn’t just the dads who turned out to be fallible.
But Tribute Acts is not without humour, despite the bleak world it presents its audiences with. Following a cutting comment from her father in his interview, likening her to Margaret Thatcher, Cheryl appears on stage riding a scooter and wearing a gold cape and just her knickers and bra— and a Margaret Thatcher rubber mask. It was a fine moment, to have come together to make risible the failures of our history despite the mistakes hanging heavy and the aftermath all around us. We’re still standing, right? And we’re laughing. Looks like they didn’t fuck us up completely.