Thursday, 14 November 2013

Fun Home, Public Theatre, Off Broadway.

It's easy to forget that, before Alison Bechdel became a test and a meme, she was a cartoonist - her regular strip "Dykes to watch out for" spawning three-point test that asks whether a piece of work has (1) at least two named female characters; (2) who have a conversation; (3) about something other than a man, and thereby provoked continual debate about the representation of female characters in pretty much every form of narrative art from comics to TV. But her other work is also important - "Fun Home" is based on her autobiographical graphic novel about growing up, particularly focussed on her coming out process, and on her relationship with her father, a neatness-obsessed man who part-time ran a Funeral Home (hence the title) who was also a closeted homosexual and who committed suicide a few months after Alison came out to her family (not a spoiler, we find this out about ten minutes into the show).

It may come as a surprise that this story is being told as a musical. But it really shouldn't - it's a story deeply covered in emotion and soul and pain and that makes it perfect for singing. The technique of having three different Alison's on stage (a young one, a college age one and a forty-something Alison who's trying to draw the story) keeps the story moving in multiple timelines (as we jump from college Alison's awkward first flirtations with the cute girl in the Women's collective to young Alison on a family trip to see "A Chorus Line", or coming up with a Jackson-5 inspired commercial for the funeral home, or focussing her attention on the Partridge Family to hide from the arguments between her parents. Beth Malone as the older Alison has a bemused detatchment as she observes her past, while Sydney Lucas is sweetly, smartly inquistive as the Small Alison and Alexandra Socha is all fumbling late-blooming adolescence (her singing of "I'm Changing My Major to Joan" is a particular highlight).

Broadway vetrans Michael Cerveris and Judy Kuhn play the parents, and they are astounding - Cerveris in particular takes a tightly-wound, deeply-uncomfortable man and makes his insecurities, his self-justifcations and his compromises fascinating. Kuhn's supressed for a lot more of the show (her initial reaction to her husband's dalliances is to bottle the feelings up) but when the true pain of living with the compromises is revealed, we feel all the pain she's been living with for far too long.

Composer Jeanine Tessori's had one of the odder modern musical theatre careers - she's never had a consistent lyrical partner, and her shows vary from the highly commercial with "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Shrek The Musical" to deeper fare like the civil-rights era "Caroline Or Change" and the faith-healing cult hit "Violet". But she proves herself a composer to be reckoned with in this strong, emotional material. Scriptwriter and lyricist Lisa Kron provides a script that is witty, smart, passionate and heartfelt and lyrics that get to the core of the characters .

I found this really emotionally affecting - a show that deserves to be seen wider (the season at the Public has extended repeatedly and supposedly eyes are on a Broadway transfer, though it would benefit from keeping things intimate) - the costs to a family of a life of painful lies in an era not set up to cope with them. This is solid, major musical theatre work of a type that's seen too rarely, and thoroughly recommended.

(note - there's a really good article at about Bechdel's reaction to the show which is well worth checking out)

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