How does one adapt a graphic novel and turn it into a musical? And not just any graphic novel, but a memoir, a personal retelling of graphic novelist Alison Bechdel’s childhood, her coming out and her complicated relationship with her father. It is a daunting task, but creators Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron not only succeed in writing a compelling score and story, they also manage to create a musical that is tragically moving and hilarious in equal measure. Under Sam Gold’s direction, Fun Home is a superb and unique production.
Alison is working on her graphic novel memoir. She is remembering her younger college years, and arrives to the key moment when she realises that she is gay. She sends a letter home in which she comes out to her parents. What she doesn’t know is that her father Bruce has been in the closet himself for decades and has been having affairs with men, occasionally with boys. Not long after her coming out, Bruce is hit by a truck and dies. The cyclical, non-linear musical follows Alison as she tries to sketch out the parallels between her experience and her father’s.
There are several Alisons here, and perhaps this is what makes the musical utterly unique and layered: you see Alison, the graphic novelist, portrayed by the remarkable Kaisa Hammarlund, always on stage, watching the events unfold, trying to remember every detail possible to piece together her life; you see Small Alison, a fierce young girl who would rather wear trousers than a pretty dress, performed on this occasion by Brooke Haynes; you see the animated Eleanor Kane’s Medium Alison, who absolutely wins the crowd over with her sincere unsureness. And you also see Alison Bechdel – not only because she is sitting in the audience on this particular press night, but also because Kron’s book is so brilliantly written, it treats the source material in a way that it neither obscures or copies it. Similarly, Gold never goes for something heavily stylised or ‘graphic-novel-y’, instead he allows Tesori’s tender and clean music to breathe, occasionally moving the action forward using a revolving platform. What we have as a result is a musical that completely stands on its own while also respecting Bechdel’s novel.
The cast is truly terrific. Ramsay Robertson as the small John steals every moment he is on stage; Kane moves as though she just stepped out of a graphic novel herself; Jenna Russel shines as Alison’s mother, Helen; and Zubin Varla returns to the Young Vic stage as Bruce, keeping his portrayal unpredictable, puzzling and somehow still heartwarming till the very end. Every member of the cast brings a sense of natural ease to the stage, so much so one often forgets they are watching a musical. We are with Alison every step of the way, and you can feel the tangible buzz in the auditorium: after every song the audience gives a thunderous applause. Timely, witty, heartbreaking – Fun Home is a triumph.
Fun Home is playing at The Young Vic until 1 September 2018
Photo: Marc Brenner