We all have blank spots in our theatre experiences. We’ve all got legendary shows we’ve missed or iconic performances we never got around to seeing. And I’m no different. Jerusalem and Enron, War Horse and the second half of Wicked! (I left at the interval as I was so bored)… These are contemporary classics missing from my resumé. Fortunately, Fun Home is now no longer included in that list.
Prior to my visit to the Young Vic I had little knowledge of Fun Home. I mean, I knew of it by reputation, obviously. But that was about it. A show based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir about coming out as gay; that’s all I really knew. I had no idea what to expect. And even if I had thought about what I was expecting from this show, I tell you now, even with all the experience of theatre that I do have, I couldn’t have possibly have imagined such a fresh, funny musical wrapped around a tender, heart-breaking story of one girl’s battle to be herself – and the tragedy of her father who failed to do the same. This show is a wonder.
Present-day Alison (Kaisa Hammarlund) is a forty-something animator struggling to complete a new cartoon. It is evidently one based on her own life and it quickly becomes clear that she is using this memoir as a way of confronting traumatic events from her past, ones that have shaped and defined her. Alison is hoping that by revisiting events from her formative years that had seemed minor at the time, perhaps now – with hindsight – they could offer clues and explanations for what was to follow.
The fun is in the memories as these scenes from Alison’s childhood are brought back to life through musical numbers (initially comedic, but increasingly less so as the finale approaches) played out by a wondrous cast of a Young Alison of only ten years old (the brilliantly talented Brooke Haynes) and College Allison (Eleanor Kane), as well as her immediate family of Dad (Zubin Varla), Mom (Jenna Russell), and two younger brothers (Ramsay Robertson and Charlie McLellan).
The musical numbers are killer – a standout track easily being Come to the Fun Home, an imagined advertisement Young Alison and her two brothers perform to promote the family business of a funeral home. And, in contrast to that almost hallucinogenic scene, the joy in Changing My Major, as College Allison has her first gay sexual experience is 100% unfiltered pure joy.
But for all the happiness, there is darkness too for, at the heart of this is Alison’s attempt to reconcile herself with an emotionally unavailable father, a troubled man who was never as attentive as she had wished for. And that heartache is tightened with the blurring of timelines as we head to the finale, with Present Day Alison replacing College Alison in scenes she wants to do again, stepping in to see if she can say the right things now to her father. To give herself a second chance, wondering how events might have been different had she just known the right words to say.
But, of course, none of us can ever do this. We can never turn back time. Instead, what we are left with is, as Alison realises, an imperative to find peace with what we cannot change. And it is that which kills you in this production. It’s the thousand cuts – the letting go, the words you can’t ever say, a mother’s silent sense of duty and obligations…. The sense of a generation now free but having to carry the emotional weight of the generation before that could not be as free as we are today.
When the lights went up I had tears in my eyes, a lump in my throat and joy in my heart. This production of Fun Home from director Sam Gold is very special indeed. One of the shows of the year by a country mile.
Young Vic Theatre, London, to 1 September, 2018.
Tickets from £10.
All production images by Marc Brenner.
Direction Sam Gold
Choreography Danny Mefford
Set and Costume David Zinn
Light Ben Stanton
Sound Kai Harada
Orchestrations John Clancy
Music Supervisor Chris Fenwick
Musical Director Nigel Lilley