Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s Tony Award-winning musical based on Alison Bechdel‘s graphic novel had its UK premiere at The Young Vic and having heard the music before I was interested to see the UK production and have my first visit to the Young Vic!
As musicals go Fun Home has certain unique qualities, 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 and relationships with family. It may not sound a barrel of laughs with the Fun Home in the title actually a Funeral Home and themes of suicide etc. but the truly remarkable thing about this show is just how funny, true and touching it is. It reaches a level of emotional honesty that other musicals just don’t begin to touch.
With a book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori, it premiered off-Broadway in 2013, transferred to Broadway in 2015 and won five Tony awards, including the prize for best musical. This new production arrives at the Young Vic with the same director, Sam Gold, and the same creative team.
The depth of their experience shows in the fleet grace of the production, narrated by an older Alison (Kaisa Hammarlund) trying to capture in cartoon and captioned form scenes from her life, which are enacted by Medium Alison (Eleanor Kane) and Small Alison (Brooke Haynes). All three actress portray the roles wonderfully fitting into the character’s different stages in her life.
The staging very often spotlights the narrator, marooned centre-stage, watching with wonder, sorrow and embarrassment as events unfold around her. Her quest is to understand. In the opening number, she picks up the words of the song her father has sung to her: “I want to know what’s true. Dig deep into who and what and why and when. Until now gives way to then.”
In David Zinn’s sophisticated design, from the early scenes in the polished grandeur of their historic house on Maple Avenue, which Bruce tends to like a museum and where his three children must fit in. To the bleak white wall that suggests both a bleak trip to New York and the disintegration of family life that gradually ensues. The design fits well in to The Young Vic’s wide stage with the band split between two balconies either side.
There are some showstopping numbers, with Tesori’s music flexing and changing to suit the mood and meaning of Kron’s words. There’s a scene where Small Alison and her young brothers break into a Jackson Three routine around a coffin, another where psychedelic lighting (courtesy of Ben Stanton) transforms the stage into a Partridge Family parody, a sharp contrast with the reality Alison is now experiencing.
Danny Mefford’s choreography plays its part in the impact of such routines, but it matters too in more simple ways: the moments when the characters are simply strung across the stage, isolated from each other by squares of light, are equally impressive.
What’s wonderful about Fun Home is the way it uses its effects to reach directly into the heart of feeling. Medium Alison’s exuberant ballad about her first night with her lover Joan (Cherrelle Skeete) “I’m changing my major” is both a joyful cry of realisation and a perfect summation of all the feelings (fear, enthusiasm, tenderness, wit) that she has encountered.
Small Alison (Brooke Haynes) sings of love to a delivery woman, who makes her realise you don’t always have to feel uncomfortable in your own skin, and just about breaks your heart with the clarity of that recognition. Brooke as small Alison is clear-voiced, confident, an entirely rounded character. Brooke is definitely a star in the making.
As Bruce, Zubin Varla magnificently conveys both his generosity and the terrible internal conflicts that make him try to override his daughter’s individuality. He is 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. The scene where he fights against the temptation to seduce a teenage boy, with darting eyes and a constantly pursed mouth is characteristic of the subtlety of his entire performance.
As Helen, the mother who knows all but says very little, Jenna Russell has the most difficult task, of being silent and passive but she finely conveys the pain involved. Her song “Days and Days” is both an individual cry of agony and an example of Fun Home’s ability to evoke the terrible sadness of parents and their children and all the ways communication between them can go wrong. It is a heart-breaking rendition as Helen informs Alison “Don’t you come back here. I didn’t raise you to give away your days like me”. Jenna plays Helen with real heart and soul and I can’t see how anyone would not cry at her perfect rendition of “Days and Days” it touched me.
The finale brings all three Alison’s together in a soaring trio of affection and sorrow for lost moments with a troubled father. Musicals as clever as this are very rare so grab a ticket now! The whole show is less than two hours, straight through, and you will never be bored and you will also, certainly, have fun.
As my first production at The Young Vic I can’t wait to return for more shows!