Thursday 28 June 2018

Theatre Review: Fun Home

A phrase I don’t often utter when leaving the theatre of an evening is ‘I just wish it had been longer’. Because if there’s one thing I love more than the theatre, it’s getting home at a reasonable hour and having a cup of tea.

And yet, here’s Fun Home. The Young Vic’s transfer of the unlikely Broadway smash clocks in at a sprightly one hour and forty minutes straight through (ie sans interval). I would happily have sat through twice that length. I longed for a second act.

Fun Home tells the autobiographical story of cartoonist Alison Bechdel growing up in a family who’s stock in trade was a funeral (fun) home and coming to terms with her sexuality whilst her father simultaneously fails to do exactly the same. It is adapted, quite brilliantly, from a comic. Not the natural source for a musical perhaps, but this clever, clever show is not deterred. It 100% resists the temptation to simplify Bechdel’s story and its uniquely comic-y structure. Just as in the comic (or any comic) there is no completely straightforward, chronological narrative. Rather, there are several. Three ages of Alison appear in the show: present day (Alison), college student (Medium Alison) and child (Small Alison). Present day Alison is on stage at almost all times and acts as a narrator, guiding us through the vignettes from her life that form the show. It totally works as both a narrative structure and as a way of staying true to the feel of the source material. 

It also provides the emotional heart of an extraordinarily emotionally complex show. There’s something about Alison watching Medium and Small Alison try and navigate what she knows, but of course they don’t, is coming that makes all the happy bits happier and the sad bits so much sadder. Lisa Kron’s book and lyrics provide the meat on these structural bones - and what gorgeous meat it is. This show is so full of warmth and heart, and properly laugh out loud humour, but never shies away from its portrayal and exploration of profound and difficult topics. It is peopled by characters who refuse to be boxed in and are human in all aspects, good and bad. The honesty of Bechdel’s source material and Kron’s adaptation is incredible. Jeanine Tesori provides the music, and it’s gorgeous, unique (so many styles!) and memorable in a sort of quiet way. This is altogether a deep and moving show, its themes of sexuality, repression, identity, regret and loss are huge, and it really shows how powerful a musical can be in the right hands. 

It’s amply shown off in a fantastic production - which is surely and quickly headed for the West End - which has transported the majority, if not all, of the original Broadway creative team to the Young Vic. Sam Gold’s direction is so sensitive and surefooted. His confidence in the piece and his vision of it shine through, especially in the pacing. For all that it’s short, this is not a production which is afraid of taking a breath, often quite a long one. David Zinn’s design is so clever and makes amazing use of the space, expanding and contracting it as the plot and the atmosphere demand. I loved the way the Bechdel family home folds out like Barbie’s Dream House and the use of the revolve to keep the action ticking along is masterful. Ben Stanton’s lighting is gorgeous, especially during (Alison’s father) Bruce’s final solo. That scene - no spoilers - contains some of the best and most evocative, of both mood and physical object, lighting I’ve seen in London for ages. 

A small but perfectly formed ensemble rounds out this beaut of a show. They’re all superb (let’s take a minute to gape in amazement at the talent and self assurance of the three child actors in the cast for a fucking start) but I particularly enjoyed Kaisa Hammarlund’s gift of an Alison. Despite being on stage more or less all night, she often doesn’t have much to say but can convey so much whilst just standing silently and watching the action that it really doesn’t matter. When she does get something to say or sing she’s even better. I just adored her. As dad Bruce, Zubin Varla is heartbreaking. It’s a difficult part, but Varla’s Bruce is both completely sympathetic and an utter shit; honest and, ultimately, a deeply tragic character. Newbie Eleanor Kane is a knockout Medium Alison, all nerves and angles and potential. The ever excellent Jenna Russel is superb as Alison’s touchingly stoic mum Helen. I would have loved to hear much, much more from her. 

Which sort of brings me back to my original point. Fun Home is a great show: touching, unique and deeply humane in a way that feels so needed at the moment. I just wish it had been longer.

Fun Home is at the Young Vic until 1st September (if it doesn’t get a West End run after that I’ll eat everyone’s hats). Ticket availability is not huge, deservedly.

My seat for this one was M57 upstairs, which has a slightly restricted view. Probably explains why it only cost £10 though which, yes, I paid. I saw the show in preview.

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