Friday 31 August 2018

Fun Home @ The Young Vic

Fun Home @ The Young Vic

The beautiful Fun Home might not be the musical we deserve, but it's the musical we need. In many ways it serves as a powerful warning to promote the importance of mental health, in the LGBT community especially.

This is the musical's first appearance in the UK since winning five Tony Awards on Broadway when it opened in 2015. With music from Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics from Lisa Kron, it's based on a graphic novel from Alison Bechdel that explores both her own sexuality and that of her father who tragically commits suicide.

The narrative is presented as a series of fragmented memories, the adult Alison (Kaisa Hammarlund) looking back on her life to answer the questions around her father's death. The show's central theme is that of grief, Alison searching through faded memories to create a comic strip of her relationship with her father as a method of coping. That she draws comics is significant - not only in a reference to Bechdel's graphic novel, but in that they often use humour to cover a deeply serious message.

Fun Home, as the title suggests, does the same. Up-tempo songs and moments of sweet comedy cover up what is a dysfunctional family. Gradually the narrative layers with tension as we await the inevitable crushing conclusion where this family life comes crumbling down.

It's also the parallel story of two people coming out - Alison and her father Bruce (Zubin Varla) - and the differences in how they cope. Alison's story is told in three parts: as an adult, a child (Harriet Turnbull/Brooke Haynes) and as a teen in college (Eleanor Kane). We see her development from innocence and naivety, to wise cynicism with clear consistency of character. It's Kane's depiction, though, that's most compelling, initial insecurity making way for the sheer glee of finding herself before the shocking revelation of her father's sexuality drags her down.

Bruce's coming out is far more painful. Here is a man who absolutely struggles with his sense of self, closeted and only exploring his sexuality in the seediness of night. More so, he overcompensates through his busy work and interests in art, imposing his views upon his daughter and living vicariously through her. He is somewhat painted as a typically troubled homosexual with shades of paedophilia, but the focus is the relationship with his daughter, equally fractured and loving. There are parallels and dissonances between them at all stages in Alison's life, early stages filled with small touches that cleverly only make sense later on.

There's also the devastating subplot of Helen Bechdel (Jenna Russell), Bruce's wife who knows full well that he's a homosexual but is powerless to change her life. Her warning to Alison about her father - a scene of crushing honesty when he himself is incapable - is perhaps the most heart-wrenching moment in a show that's full of them, owing to Russell's subtle and relatable performance.

Tesori's music is perhaps a little unremarkable. The contemporary chamber music score is full of catchy upbeat tunes and gently mournful string and clarinet melodies, but its purpose is always to serve the intimacy of the drama and not to stop the show. In that sense, the music is very much woven into the fabric of the narrative, songs used as inner monologues.

That's important in a show about mental health. In some ways, it reflects a cheery side to tragedy, but the writing is exceptionally relatable. There's the rush of thoughts with the excitement of coming out. There's the pleading to speak when no words will come. And there's the sensitivity to stop words altogether when they seem impossible, feelings left unspoken.

There are so many layers to the domestic drama of Fun Home. It is an outstanding musical of human empathy, tugging on the heart strings in the most earnest, raw way. You cannot fail to be touched.


Watch: Fun Home runs at The Young Vic theatre until 1st September.

Fun Home @ The Young Vic