Music: Jeanine Tesori
Book and Lyrics: Lisa Kron
Director: Sam Gold
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, this intelligent musical comes to London laden with Tony awards from its run on Broadway. For a story with a father’s suicide at its heart, this is not your usual hedonistic musical, but a powerful exploration of the process of coming out. It will undoubtedly win awards here too.
With all these awards, it’s apt that the first song in the show is about provenance – a young Alison is being taught by her father to find out if objects are actually antiques, if linen is really damask. Observing the two from her illustrator’s desk is the adult Alison, who is now working out her own provenance. In turn, Fun Home’s origins started in 2006 when Bechdel published her graphic novel, an autobiographical account of her early life, focussing mainly on her relationship with her father.
Until she came out as a lesbian in college she had no idea that her father was also struggling with his own sexuality. Appropriately, as it’s both funny and sad, she subtitled the book A Family Tragicomic. Fun Home was a great success, but Bechdel turned down the suggestion it be turned into a film, but, with trepidation, allowed Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron to adapt it into a musical, with direction by Sam Gold, who also directs the Young Vic’s production. Between them, they have managed to retain the magic and, crucially, the brains of the original.
Fun Home gets its title from the funeral home that her father ran, in addition to his teaching English literature at school. And death and literature haunt the musical as they do the book. Alison’s father keeps a clean house both at home and at work and we see how he orders his children into cleaning duties in a military-style reminiscent of Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music before Maria arrives. But here the similarities between the two musicals ends as Fun Home opens up to tell us three stories simultaneously – the story of Small Alison, of Medium Alison at university, and adult Alison, writing the graphic memoir.
The three Alisons are excellent. Kaisa Hammarlund’s performance as the adult Alison is so believable that it seems impossible that anyone could do it better. Likewise, Eleanor Kane as Medium Alison is perfect, giving her a comic awkwardness in her first romantic encounter and her Changing My Major to Joanis one of the highlights of the evening. But best is Brooke Haynes (who will share the role of Small Alison during the run), and she brings the roof down in Ring of Keys. Her confidence and singing are outstanding here. She’s a star in the making.
Zubin Varla as the father is suitably distant and cold, though he remains human enough that we are sympathetic to his pain, despite the fact that he may love his house more than his family. His house is sketchily and, then elaborately, imagined in David Zinn’s set, and fits well in the Young Vic’s wide stage, with the band split between two balconies on either side. Tesori and Kron’s catchy and emotive songs soar here, too, with only Raincoat of Love feeling out of place.
It seems inevitable that Fun Home will get a West End transfer as did The Young Vic’s previous play The Inheritance, which opens at the Noel Coward Theatre in September. To have both a lesbian musical and a gay male play in the West End at the same time sounds like a very exciting prospect. But just in case it doesn’t get a transfer, you should catch Fun Home while you can. Musicals as clever as this are very rare.
Runs until 1 September 2018 | Image: Marc Brenner