'A staggering work of art'
Two arpeggios start Fun Home, like a tune a child would play after their first piano lesson. Suddenly they attach themselves to broad, suspended harmonies, the childlike texture sitting on top of something more adult. Meetings like that – of young and grown-up – make up this whole show, an extraordinary musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel about growing up and coming out.
In a quiet, deeply sentimental and desperately moving way, this is an incredibly radical show. Written by two women, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, it was the first Broadway show to feature a lesbian protagonist when it played there in 2015, and it takes the Rodgers and Hammerstein idea of the ‘integrated musical’ to the next level.
Crafted as a rough patchwork of narrative, scenes occur in the manner of memory: disordered and strangely tinted. Adult Alison watches younger versions of herself, both as a child and a university student, and comes to terms with her father’s apparent suicide.
There’s an incredible generosity to Tesori’s straining music, full of uncompleted lines and suspended notes. It’s all about how it can best express story and character rather than show off a show tune. That’s not to say it doesn’t have those too – all three Alisons get a stunning song, and the final half-hour doesn’t let chills leave the body for an instant.
But it’s such a delicate piece, directed by Sam Gold accordingly. Apart from two big numbers, there’s never too much action on stage. There’s a revolve, but it’s used sparingly. Gold simply accentuates the words and music, with no more flash than that.
Each of the Alisons is superb: from Brooke Haynes’ small Alison (alternating with Harriet Turnbull) working out she’s gay in the sublime Ring of Keys, to Eleanor Kane’s gabbling and awkward medium Alison finding a girlfriend, to Kaisa Hammarlund as the adult version, gentle and assured.
The show tackles the hardships of coming out, but also moves beyond that narrative. It’s much more about parenthood, and families as places where micro tyrannies – like that of Alison’s dad Bruce – can have devastating effects. The dark heart of the show is Zubin Varla as Bruce. With growling voice and slightly affected air, he’s a knot of self-disgust and self-obsession.
Jenna Russell’s performance as Alison’s mum Helen provides one of the production’s most moving moments. She’s like a stone wall, impenetrable, her eyes always pointed at the floor. She’s had to suck up all the embarrassments and injustices thrown at her by her husband, and you can almost see the way they’ve thickened her skin but also worn her down.
What’s so wonderful about the adaptation is the details of Bechdel’s novel it picks up on. At the same time as it evokes all the confusion and sadness in the book, it also quietly revolutionises the musical form. Add to that an exquisite set, beautifully lit, and you get, quite simply, a staggering work of art.
'Another groundbreaking masterpiece from Jeanine Tesori'
You might have thought that Jeanine Tesori would have her work cut out composing something as perfect in its singularity as Caroline, or Change, her musical about a black maid in a Jewish household at the time of the civil rights movement. But, in collaboration this time with dramatist Lisa Kron who wrote the book and the lyrics, she's pulled off another groundbreaking masterpiece with Fun Home.
The show is a sublime adaptation of Alison Bechdel's acclaimed graphic-novel memoir about growing up lesbian in small-town Pennsylvania with a closeted gay father who was forever obsessively restoring the family funeral home (hence the ironic title). In 2015, it was the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist and went on to win five Tony Awards.
This delicate, stunning UK premiere – with the same director, Sam Gold, but with an English cast and musicians — is a typically generous and visionary parting gift from the Young Vic's former artistic director, David Lan, who programmed and produced it.
Bechdel subtitles her book “A Family Tragicomic”. The joyous blossoming of Alison's sexuality at college coincides with the disintegration of her father. Ironically, she only learns of her father's secret gay life as she is discovering her own lesbianism. There is no danger of spoilers here: she reveals early on that, four months after she came out to her parents, her father stepped in front of a truck with apparently suicidal intent.
True to the (almost purposively) disorganised nature of memory, the show keeps shifting around three time frames. The 43-year-old Alison (Kaisa Hammarlund) looks back at two younger selves as she combs the past for clues about her connection to this enigmatic parent.
Each of these Alisons gives a superlative performance. At the press night, Brooke Haynes took the breath away as Small Alison (she shares the roll with Harriet Turnbull), especially in “Ring of Keys”, that quiet, piercing song about the epiphany the girl experiences at the sight of a butch delivery woman in a diner. Eleanor Kane winningly captures the college student's goofy rapture after losing her virginity: “I'm Changing My Major to Joan”.
The show has two big pastiche numbers – a Jackson 5 spoof that Small Alison and her brothers perform round one of the caskets (“We got Kleenex and your choice of psalm/Think of Bechdel when you need to embalm” ) and, replete with psychedelic lightning, “Raincoat of Dreams”, a Partridge Family parody that's grotesquely at variance with Alison's actual home life.
In general, though, Tesori's score is remarkable for for the suppleness and spontaneity with which it searches for emotional truth rather than cater for traditional Broadway “slots”. Robust when it needs to be, it's a sensitive - often transportingly beautiful – tissue of linked leitmotivs and achingly suspended harmonies, exquisitely performed here by Nigel Lilley and his six-piece band.
There's a stunning moment in Gold's excellent production when the bleak white wall that has evoked an unhappy New York trip rises and we get a deep view of Bechdel drawing room in all its full, fussed-over, sterile grandeur. In some ways, the spectacle is more bleak than the wall and, as the wife who has absorbed and suppressed the knowledge of all her husband's gay infidelities, Jenna Russell is devastating in “Days and Days”, a song of angry regret that she has wasted her life as assistant curator in this museum.
'A quirky, haunting, heartbreaking coming-of-age tale'
'A show of aching, heartfelt tenderness, daring and caring'
'A generous musical in love with quietness and ambiguity'
'A beautifully performed mix of memory-play and strip-cartoon'