Wednesday 11 July 2018

Striking a chord: Alison Bechdel's Fun Home as a musical at the Young Vic

Tesori, Kron & Bechdel: Fun Home - Kaisa Hammarlund - Young VIc (Photo Marc Brenner)
Tesori, Kron & Bechdel: Fun Home - Kaisa Hammarlund - Young VIc (Photo Marc Brenner)
Jeanine Tesori, Lisa Kron, Alison Bechdel Fun Home; Kaisa Hammarlund, Eleanor Kane, Jenna Russell, Zubin Varla, dir: Sam Gold; Young Vic Theatre Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 6 July 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The musical based on Alison Bechdel's graphic novel exploring her complex relationship with her father

Tesori, Kron & Bechdel: Fun Home - Eleanor Kane, Cherelle Keete - Young VIc (Photo Marc Brenner)
Eleanor Kane, Cherelle Keete - Young VIc (Photo Marc Brenner)
I was a great devotee of Alison Bechdel's comic strip Dykes to watch out for, and so eagerly read her graphic novel Fun Home, which  she describes as a family tragiccomic. I was intrigued, to say the least, by the idea of turning Fun Home into a musical. Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron's musical Fun Home debuted in 2013 in a production by Sam Gold. And Gold's production has now come to the UK, at the Young Vic where we caught in on Friday 6 July 2018. Kaisa Hammarlund played Alison, with Eleanor Kane as Medium Alison, Harriet Turnbull (alternating with Brooke Haynes) as Small Alison, Jenna Russell as Helen, Cherrelle Skeete as Joan, Zubin Varla as Bruce, plus Ashley Samuels, Archie Smith and Eddie Martin. Design was by David Zinn with choreography by Danny Mefford and lighting by Ben Stanton. The instrumental ensemble was conducted by Nigel Lilley, and the orchestrations were by John Clancy.

Alison Bechdel's graphic novel explores her complex relationship with her father, with the Alison of the present looking back on the past with a distinct authorial voice. It is a story in which there were no easy answers, as Alison came to terms with her own sexuality and came out to her parents she learned that her father has had affairs with men throughout his marriage. Not long after Alison's coming out to her parents her father died, apparently committing suicide and the book is an exploration of Alison's relationship with her father in an attempt to make sense of all this.

Tesori, Kron & Bechdel: Fun Home - Ashley Samuels, Zubin Varla - Young VIc (Photo Marc Brenner)
Ashley Samuels, Zubin Varla - Young Vic (Photo Marc Brenner)
The musical translates the fluid form of the graphic novel (which has the authorial Alison Bechdel remembering and drawing the past) with a multi-layered structure with three Alisons, Alison (the present, played by Kaisa Hammarlund), Medium Alison (late teens and about to go to college, played by Eleanor Kane) and Small Alison (around nine years of age, played by Harriet Turnbull) . Alison (the present) was on stage for much of the time, remembering, interacting with and drawing the past.  As the piece developed she came to see hear earlier selves in the light of developments, and found hints of her lesbian present in the past.

In one sense, the home-life Alison Bechdel describes is remarkably dysfunctional, but most lesbians and gay men will be able to identify with Medium Alison's journey to understanding her sexuality, her first relationship and eventually taking her girlfriend home to meet her parents and most notably coming out to her parents. This latter, done by letter and eliciting at first no response, resonated very strongly with my own experiences and clearly resonated with many others in the audience.

The music is surprisingly fluid, moving in and out of the dialogue in a subtle way, yet bringing in enough up-beat point numbers to make the work uplifting too. Alison Bechdel's wry humour comes over, and I loved the young children's pop number as an advertising jingle for the funeral home, and the big production number which counterpointed the fantasy dream family with real life.

Tesori, Kron & Bechdel: Fun Home - Jenna Russell - Young VIc (Photo Marc Brenner)
Jenna Russell - Young Vic (Photo Marc Brenner)
There were poignant and touching numbers too. Medium Alison's song after her first night with her girlfriend Joan (Cherrelle Skeete) was a highlight. And Alison's mother Helen's Sondheim-esque song about her marriage to a man who likes men, received a controlled and powerfully moving performance from Jenna Russell. At the centre, Alison's father Bruce (Zubin Varla) who we never quite know and whose final scene is a long musical monologue, ostensibly about renovating a house but really about his own life. We might never quite know him, but Zubin Varla's peformance elicited touching sympathy.

Kaisa Hammarlund, Eleanor Kane and Harriet Turnbull were beautifully complemented as the three Alisons. Kaisa Hammarlund's wry detachment in the face of family history, Eleanor Kane combining naivety and enthusiam, and Harriet Turnbull wonderfully confident as the rather demanding Small Alison. In fact, all three children, Harriet Turnbull, Archie Smith and Eddie Martin, were stupendous. Both Jenna Russell and Zubin Varla gave strong performances as Alison's parents, roles which switched between two eras. And their highly empathetic performances enabled us to sympathise and understand. Cherrelle Skeete was delightful as Joan, whilst Ashley Samuels popped in various roles as the men in Bruce's life!

The piece played without an interval, carrying you forward. Thanks to the musical's book capturing something of Alison Bechdel's humour, the piece avoided the pitfall of sentimentality at the end.

Tesori, Kron & Bechdel: Fun Home - Brooke Haynes, Kaisa Hammarlund, Zubin Varla- Young VIc (Photo Marc Brenner)
Tesori, Kron & Bechdel: Fun Home - Brooke Haynes, Kaisa Hammarlund, Zubin Varla- Young Vic (Photo Marc Brenner)
The reaction of the audience was uniformly enthusiastic and the piece clearly struck a chord. I did wonder, though, how someone would react if they had not read Alison Bechdel's book or for whom the struggle to come to terms with their sexuality was not an immediate concern.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Romantic exploration: Rheinberger and Scholz piano concertos from Simon Callaghan (★★★★)  - CD review
  • Inner demons - Mozart's Idomeneo at the Buxton Festival  (★★★½) - Opera review
  • Rip-roaring rarity: Verdi's Alzira in a rare outing at the Buxton International Festival (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Changing the discourse, soprano Madeleine Pierard & director Sophie Gilpin talk about SWAP'ra - Interview
  • Garsington premiere: David Sawer & Rory Mullarkey's The Skating Rink (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Richly imaginative: Richard Blackford 's Niobe with Tamsin Waley-Cohen (★★★★★) - Cd review
  • Sublime Illusions - Noh Reimagined, a weekend of Noh performance and workshops at Kings Place (★★★★★) - music theatre review
  • Handel & Vivaldi from Grace Davidson & the Academy of Ancient Music (★★★½) - cd review
  • The good the bad and the ugly: Susan Froemke's The Opera House (★★★½) - film review
  • Russian Romantics: music for violin & piano by Glinka, Glazunov, Cui, Rubenstein, & more (★★★) - CD review
  • Powerful & emotional stuff: Peter Maxwell Davies' The Lighthouse at RCM Double Bill - Opera review
  • Home

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