At work, I was asked what was the best show I’ve seen lately. Naturally, Hamilton came up, but so did Fun Home, which is now showing at the Young Vic theatre. Months ago, before the production had begun, I saw a huge poster of it at the theatre with the words ‘5 Tony Awards’ printed across it. For some reason, despite not knowing much about the show, it immediately piqued my interest. I felt compelled to tell my theatre friend we needed to book tickets before it became a sold out show. I had this gut wrenching feeling it was going to be a hit. A couple days after the official press night had passed and, lo and behold, my suspicions were confirmed; if you want to catch Fun Home, the only option left is to call up and hope the theatre has some return tickets.
As promoted, the Broadway sensation took home five Tony Awards in 2015, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, and the show owes its narrative to Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel. Lyricist, Lisa Kron and composer, Jeanine Tesori adapted Bechdel’s novel into a wonderfully delightful and heartbreaking stage show. Its musical universe is far from the world of jazz hands, glitter and glamour, yet its subject matter takes some dark turns which are masterfully conveyed by director, Sam Gold‘s production. Fun Home dissects the complexity of the novelist’s upbringing in a small town in Pennsylvania, growing up with her two young brothers, and being raised by her supportive mother and extremely demanding father.
The fun home, short for ‘Funeral Home’, is the major source of the Bechdel family’s income. While watching the performance at the spacious Young Vic theatre I felt the title of the show could have easily been replaced by another title – Bruce Bechdel: The Musical, and that’s mostly because of the intriguing and curious nature of Alison’s enigmatic and awfully neurotic father.
From the opening scenes Bruce seems amusing, quirky and inspiring as an ex-schoolteacher; he is passionate about history, art and literature. Yet, within a few minutes in, the audience get to know Bruce for what he really is. He is proud, arrogant and overly critical of everyone else, including his children and wife. This is clearly marked in the way Bruce designed the family home. David Zinn’s set designs are quite the spectacle here – it is astonishing to see how the stage manages to conceal a grand living room, as majestic as this one, until the final scenes.
Zubin Varla perfectly outlines the character of Bruce. Having now seen Fun Home at the Young Vic, I cannot imagine a better actor to sing and perform as Bruce. Varla masterfully captures Bruce’s intellect as well as his internal violence and mental instability. Harriet Turnbull (young Alison), Eddie Martin and Archie Smith are exuberant and charming as Bruce’s children, singing and dancing away to their trio number “Come to the Fun Home”. Their jumping in and out of a coffin and impressive high notes were fantastic!
Eleanor Kane portrays Alison in her college years: hopeful, optimistic and funny, in a cute way. Watching Kane is a reminder of how confusing and perplexing life can be during those early years. For Kane, it is Alison’s most treasured moment identifying and embracing her sexuality with first-time girlfriend Joan, seamlessly performed by Cherrelle Skeete.
Kaisa Hammarlund does a brilliant job as the older Alison. The successful graphic artist is constantly in the background, looking back into her past, rehearsing and revisiting her hard and soft engagements with her erratic father. Songs like ‘Telephone Wire’ and ‘It was great to have you home’ pull on your heartstrings, and it was my only regret I didn’t have enough tissues with me during these songs.
The same goes for Jenna Russell’s sympathetic and emotional performance, ‘Days and Days’. This is one of the many pivotal scenes where the musical is no longer just about Alison’s life, but the other forces affected by Bruce’s wants and desires. And I won’t forget to mention the mesmerising music performed by a live band with music director, Chris Fenwick.
Fun Home is a refreshing and crafty stage piece that everyone should go and see. It’s incomparable to any other musical or stage show mainly because a work of this strength and theatrical nature has never been done before.
Fun Home is showing at the Young Vic now until 1 September, 2018. Go to the Young Vic website to check for returns, go here.
I purchased tickets to review this show.[Header shot: Kaisa Hammarlund and Zubin Varla. Photos by Marc Brenner.]