Fun Home at the Young Vic Theatre: a delicate retelling through tragedy and comedy of a story of identification
The first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist, Fun Home explores homosexuality amidst a series of troubled family relationships. Anthony Walker-Cook reviews the UK adaptation of this new musical.
The past can be captured in many ways on the stage. To take Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, the past lives of the characters appear on stage as ghosts, spirits of the dilapidated theatre of the once-famous Weismann Theatre. Follies appeared in 1971, and now Fun Home, which first opened on Broadway in 2015,presents an equally beautiful examination of life, loss and regret. Based on the autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, Fun Home’s book and lyrics were written by Lisa Kron, with the music composed by Jeanine Tesori offering a variety of songs ranging from the macabre to the deeply moving. The first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist, Fun Home has now come to the UK at the Young Vic Theatre where, under Sam Gold’s direction, the entire cast treat Bechdel’s story with delicacy, tracing the woman’s life at three different points.
Alison, or ‘Al’, is a cartoonist recounting her life through drawings and accompanying captions. Fun Home opens with her father Bruce and the youngest version of herself looking through a box of mostly junk. As Bruce (Zubin Varla) pulls out a grimy teapot, so too does the mature Alison (Kaisa Hammarlund) pull out the same object but that is now polished. Looking back over her life, and sometimes actively writing the scene as it develops, Hammarlund is often to be spotted around the stage, deeply enthralled in her past, or even directly repeating some of her father’s dialogue or lyrics. Living in Pennsylvania, Bruce is an English teacher, the owner of the Fun Home funeral centre and restores furniture on the side. Both Bruce and Alison are gay, but within four weeks of Alison coming out to her parents her father steps out in front of a truck and is killed. Fun Home explores, amongst other things, the relationship between father and daughter as much as the process of identification for a member of the LGBTQ+ community. ‘Ring of Keys’, performed by the wonderful Brooke Haynes as Small Alison, sees the two sitting in a diner when a woman walks in with whom Alison feels a connection, while during the heart-breaking ‘Telephone Wire’ the father and daughter sit in a car evidently wanting to talk but unable to do so as the music rises to a climax at numerous points only to be deflated by Bruce’s awkward dialogue. As Alison’s father, Varla layers the frustration of a closeted existence onto a narcissistic and troubled man that draws audiences in only to quickly push them away.
That is the difference between Bruce and Alison. In preparing dead bodies to be buried or in restoring objects, Bruce and his family, as first offered in ‘Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue’, polish, shine, rearrange and realign. Alison however writes and creates something new. Having suffered throughout her marriage to Bruce, Jenna Russell’s Helen has long despised the “museum of a home” she has lived in, devastatingly opening ‘Days and Days’ with a broken chorus of ‘Welcome to Our House’. At last speaking after an enduring silence, Russell’s solo song to her daughter comes amidst the ordered set of the family home. David Zinn’s set design has a tired and ersatz opulence with the variety of objects, somewhat a reminder of Bruce identifying the majority of the stuff in the box at the opening as junk. As Alison’s personal search to learn about her father develops, a long white backdrop comes across the stage like a comic-strip border. When Eleanor Kane’s Middle Alison brings her girlfriend Joan (Cherrelle Skeete) home for the first time, this border is lifted to reveal the family home once more, but which now extends to the back of the theatre with a homely feel. With warm lighting and comfortable arm chairs, however, this vision is literally closed off in a coup de theatre as Bruce approaches his final song, the haunting ‘Edge of the World’, before his death.
Yet to match this is a tireless comedy that manages to infuse this family drama with a resilience in the face of such tragedy. Alison and her brothers morbidly record ‘Come to the Fun Home’ as a Jackson-Five-esque tribute commercial to the funeral home, in which, to give an example, Alison cries “en garde” as she proffers an aneurism hook to the audience. ‘Raincoat of Dreams’ offers another parody, this time of the Partridge Family. Where ‘Telephone Wire’ feels frustratingly restricted, ‘Changing my Major’ accounts Alison’s first sexual encounter and Kane’s performance includes a series of beautifully soaring notes. Spearheading the performance is Hammarlund and whether she is working out a caption, drawing a new cartoon or sorrowfully watching her past being performed, there is always the opportunity to draw on the embarrassment of the past.
Leaving Fun Home was surprisingly difficult. Walking back from the Young Vic, it was difficult to contain the variety of emotions that come from watching so many stunning performances. Fixed by the intimacy of the family drama and personal exploration while caught against the soaring music and evolving set, Fun Home is, simply, a stunning piece of theatre. Looking at Bechdel’s cartoons, soft lines counter the straight expressions, and this adaptation presents an equally subtle tableau of personal discovery. Caption: Fun Home at the Young Vic Theatre is a sublime, transcendent show that you must see.
Fun Home plays at the Young Vic Theatre until September 1st, 2018.
Feature photograph: Marc Brenner