Young Vic, London – until 1 September 2018
Even those who aren’t aware of Alison Bechdel will no doubt be familiar with some aspects of her work. The Bechdel Test (a quantifiable scale of female representation in the media) has been one of the major influences in 21st century pop culture, causing the powers that be and audiences alike to stop and think about the ways in which women are depicted. I don’t know about you, but I now almost subconsciously calculate whether a film, TV show or play I watch could pass Bechdel’s test.
Now Bechdel’s own equally important and fascinating story has been brought to the public eye, in Lisa Kron (book) and Jeanine Tesori’s (music) adaptation of her ‘tragicomic’ autobiographical graphic novel, Fun Home. Kron navigates the unusual source material by dramatising grown-up Alison’s (Kaisa Hammarlund) process of reminiscence and illustration. Poised behind her artist’s bench, she ‘captions’ the scenes as she sees them, images that flit in non-chronological order, so that we, like Alison herself, must piece together a meaning narrative from the pivotal events in her life.
The story can be split into three blocks, each strand building to its individual epiphany. Small Alison struggles with living up to her father, Bruce’s, expectations – she wants to watch cartoons, wear jeans and run around with her brothers, while he insists on her ‘fitting in’ by wearing dresses, tying back her long hair and drawing precise, traditional pictures as opposed to Alison’s preference for figurative collage. We see Medium Alison coming to terms with her sexuality and coming out to her family. All the while, Big Alison endeavours to unravel the tragedy of her father’s suicide, his openly secret homosexuality, and the role he played in shaping her childhood.
Like most memory plays, we are aware that Alison’s version of events is patchy, unfinished and coloured by hindsight and personal feeling. This is beautifully conveyed in Kron’s book as Alison frequently stumbles over her choice of words, tries out and discards new expressions, and generally thinks out loud.
As a basic insight into the approach artists take towards creation, it feels, at once, organic and intimate, a technique embraced by David Zinn’s set. From jumbled heaps of furniture to semi-populated spaces, to the white expanse that echoes a blank canvass, to the fully realised ornate house on Maple Avenue, Zinn’s design mimics the collage of images our memories create while also evoking Bechdel’s original illustrative work.
One of the aspects I found most moving was Kron and Tesori’s faith in silence. As a graphic novel tells a story through images, words and, perhaps most importantly, the spaces in between, Fun Home’s creators similarly embrace multimodal techniques to enhance the joy and tragedy of the piece. Rarely have I seen a ‘loss for words’ so appropriately and satisfyingly portrayed. It may be somewhat incongruous to say, but within ‘Ring of Keys’, the musical’s breakthrough number, the most eloquent expressions of self-discovery are found in Small Alison’s moments of halting inarticulation, there are no words to express the joy and recognition she feels. Alternately, if ‘Ring of Keys’ is a blazing and triumphant epiphany, then ‘Telephone Wire’ is it’s melancholic, transient cousin. Alison’s final car ride with Bruce is brimming with thoughts unspoken and missed milestones, the fact that Big Alison chooses to relive this memory, physically transposing her younger self, is revelatory enough.
The tragedy resides in not only the miscommunication between father and daughter, but in the uncannily similar but ultimately divergent journeys of Alison and Bruce. In some ways Bruce is the anti-Alison, seemingly all-knowing, yet strangely void of truthful discovery. While, despite the retrospective structure, Alison remains on a progressive trajectory, Bruce seems to stagnate. Alison can fit her father’s whole life in a small circle drawn on a map of Pennsylvania – where he was born, where he worked, where he died – and the ‘museum’-like home Bruce painstakingly creates turns out not to be a gift, but a burden on his family who work tirelessly to maintain its façade. Bruce refuses to adapt, living desperately in a life he has precision-crafted for himself, even in his darkest hours believing he ‘might still break a heart or two’. Yet there are moments of tender acknowledgment; for example, is Bruce’s gift of a Colette novel to an adolescent Alison a hint that he understands even what she is yet to understand herself?
Kron and Tesori (and Bechdel herself, I imagine) don’t provide any easy answers. Truths are uncomfortable and explanations remain unearthed; Alison’s hypothesising that her own (successful) coming to terms with her sexuality and identity was in fact a trigger for Bruce’s breakdown, or the fact that she will never totally know the torrent of undercurrents belying his life and motives, are stinging questions that hang over the piece. There is a moment where Big Alison posits her father’s activities one night on a trip to New York – did he go out to buy a newspaper? Did he go ‘cruising’? – but, in the end, she knows this is only conjecture, that she’ll never really know. Despite the pervading theme of elusiveness, a taster of the satisfaction we crave is quenched in the final emphasis on Alison’s treasured memory of ‘perfect balance’, soaring above Bruce playing ‘airplanes’, relishing the infrequent but highly prized physical contact with her father. Sentimental, most certainly, but a tableau that perfectly captures the bittersweet flavour of the show.
Tesori’s score is mature, but never po-faced, with superbly timed pastiches (‘Come To the Fun Home’, ‘Raincoat of Love’), Sondheim-esque melodic motifs (‘Maps’), and rousing counterpoints (‘Welcome to our House on Maple Avenue’, ‘Flying Away’). Gold elicits brilliance from his young cast, with Harriet Turnbull being perhaps the most expressive and empathetic child actor I’ve seen. For a person so young, she absolutely nails the comedy, quirks and nuances of the character while never coming across as overly precocious. Eleanor Kane’s Medium Alison is just as endearing, her ‘Changing My Major’ is a masterful display of awkwardness, naivety, and youthful resolve all rolled up into a big bouncing ball of giddy delight. Jenna Russell once again proves herself the darling of the theatre world with a subtle performance that reveals mother, Helen’s, internal anguish, most notably in the elegiac ‘Days and Days’. If someone doesn’t release the UK rights to Next To Normal soon I may combust with frustration – that show was made for Russell. Someone.Do.It.Now.Please.
Amidst all of the truly impeccable performances, Zubin Varla perhaps leaves the greatest impression as the enigmatic Bruce. Prosaic yet fanciful, affectionate but stern, intelligent yet irrational; he is at once a solid presence, a centre of gravity around which the other characters’ lives orbit, yet Varla emits a sense that with the merest change in wind Bruce could disappear off the face of the earth. His admission that ‘beginnings are harder when you’re older’ and that he’d ‘squeezed out every bit of life he could’ is crushingly stark. As it stands Varla is my top pick for best actor in a musical come awards season. Watch this space.
Fun Home exceeds all expectations. It’s one of those productions where everything – book, music, performance, design – comes together in perfect harmony and by the final notes you know you’ve witnessed something sublime. If I could see it again tomorrow I would jump at the chance, and I hope beyond hope that Bechdel, Tesori, Kron and Gold’s creation will have further life in the UK.
Fun Home plays at the Young Vic until 1st September.
Kaisa Hammarlund as Alison in Fun Home. Photo: Marc Brenner