Thursday, 28 June 2018

Theatre review: Fun Home

The Young Vic’s programme is announced so far in advance that only now, months after Kwame Kwei-Armah took over as Artistic Director, do we get the final show programmed by his predecessor David Lan. And it’s a powerful note to end on, as he imports Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron’s (book and lyrics) unconventional Broadway musical hit Fun Home, which adapts Alison Bechdel’s non-linear, autobiographical graphic novel for the stage. The story device sees Kaisa Hammarlund as the adult Alison try to write her book, struggling to come up with the correct caption to describe her relationship with her father Bruce (Zubin Varla,) the relationship which forms the centre of her story. It’s largely the story of her coming to terms with her sexuality and coming out, told through flashbacks to her childhood as Small Alison (Harriet Turnbull, alternating with Brooke Haynes) and her college years as Medium Alison (Eleanor Kane.)

All the time she’s dealing with this, she misses the signs that seem obvious in hindsight, that her father was also gay and in the closet.

“The Fun Home” is Bruce and his children’s euphemism for the funeral parlour the family runs, and death hangs over the story – Alison reveals early on that her father committed suicide a few months after she came out. The family home itself is often far from fun: They live in a mansion they bought on the cheap because it was so run-down, and Bruce has painstakingly restored it himself. But with this comes a preciousness about it, and the kids are often enlisted to keep it polished from top to bottom like a museum that can be shown off to visitors.

Their father’s frequent, violent mood swings are an inevitable source of tension in the house, but Fun Home largely manages to stay upbeat, with the most memorable songs including the title number’s Jackson 5 pastiche from Small Alison and her brothers (Archie Smith and Eddie Martin, alternating with Charlie McLellan and Ramsay Robertson) and Medium Alison’s “Changing My Major” after meeting her first girlfriend Joan (Cherrelle Skeete.) Alison and Joan are both female characters who have names, and they have scenes where they speak to each other about a subject other than a man, although a man (Bruce) does figure heavily in a lot of their conversation.

Jenna Russell was last on stage in the Jamie Lloyd Faustus, and the effort of trying to rescue that every night meant she’s had to spend the last couple of years hiding in Eastenders, but now she returns to musical theatre as Alison’s mother Helen, quietly pushing down her emotions over her husband’s blatant attempts to seduce teenage boys (all played by Ashley Samuels) and somehow just about managing to get away with it. It finally explodes in her moving “Days and Days” – although at times Fun Home feels like it’s going to be the kind of Sondheim-inspired American musical that favours complexity over tunes you can hum, there are a few standout numbers that give the lie to that.

Sam Gold’s production comes direct from New York and brings with it a simplicity and directness that suits this sometimes haunting story, but also an inventiveness that reflects the life in among all the death; David Zinn’s black-box design is also deceptively simple, paving the way for a coup de théâtre that drew gasps as it was revealed. Fun Home has been a hotly anticipated transfer and it doesn’t disappoint, a show with an emotional range from heartbreaking to uplifting, and a story that encompasses LGBT experiences from the tragic to the triumphant.

Fun Home by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, is booking until the 1st of September at the Young Vic.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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