The STC’s Australian premiere brings a sense of compassion to the musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s groundbreaking graphic novel Fun Home. By Cassie Tongue.
When Tennessee Williams wrote The Glass Menagerie, he coined a term in the stage directions: memory play. “Memory,” he wrote, “takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.”
Tom Wingfield, the source of the memories in the play, notes when he first appears onstage that “in memory everything happens to music”. And in Fun Home, a heartbreaking, heart-repairing musical based on a graphic novel, memory and music intertwine like an essential creative cartography: if we follow them, we might discover the truth of who we are.
Written by Lisa Kron with a score by Jeanine Tesori, Fun Home is the Tony Award-winning adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s critically acclaimed, boundary breaking, cartoon-driven self-excavation.
Just a few months after Bechdel came out to her family as a lesbian, she tells us at the top of the show, her father – who was gay and closeted – died by suicide. This collision of generational difference and family anguish is shattering, linking these events profoundly and painfully to one another in her mind.
In the Australian premiere for the Sydney Theatre Company, director Dean Bryant handles the musical with an uncommon and elegant sense of care. Musicals are often sentimental – they are, after all, in the business of feelings that swell out of the orchestra, notes that shimmer from talented throats through the air to land in our guts – but they are rarely compassionate. In this production, Fun Home has been infused with compassion.
Struggle, it suggests, is human. The best and the worst of us coexist on a continuum, inextricably linked. Bryant keeps these ideas front and centre as he shapes scenes with gentle, accountable hands. There are no harsh, neatly tied-up numbers. The one time the show gives in to razzle-dazzle, it’s to drown out a particularly ugly memory, and it doesn’t last long.
As we explore the Bechdel family history, we follow memory in fragments. At the centre is Alison Bechdel (Lucy Maunder), who is trying to create her memoir. She occasionally speaks in captions and her drawing table is unhitched from time and space. She watches every scene – protectively, wryly, devastatingly.
She observes the character growth of her childhood self, Small Alison (Mia Honeysett on opening night; the role is shared by three young performers) and her college-aged, newly out self, Medium Alison (Maggie McKenna). Her father, Bruce (Adam Murphy), is a complication, a contradiction: volatile, always angry, sometimes charming. Her mother, Helen (Marina Prior), tries to hold the family together. The cast is rounded out by Alison’s younger brothers, John and Christian (the roles shared by six young actors), and the occasional young man in Bruce’s orbit (all played by Ryan Gonzalez).
As Alison grows to better understand herself as a queer person, her father struggles more and more against socially and self-imposed cages. He flies into rages. He is a teacher and abuses the power of his position to access young men. We meet only one who is old enough to consent. This ghastly reality sits alongside Bruce’s pain but cannot excuse it; his actions are impossible to reconcile, and this production of Fun Home does not ask us to try. There isn’t much peace here at all.
But there is grace.
There is Small Alison experiencing her first moment in queer recognition as she sees a butch woman in a diner (“Ring of Keys”), a young, not-quite-named yearning that ends in a repetition that marks new understanding: “I know you/ I know you/ I know you…”
There is Medium Alison, giddily throwing her hands to the sky after spending the night with her girlfriend, Joan (Emily Havea), for the first time (“Changing My Major”), and capturing the moment her reality shifts: “I don’t know who I am/ I’ve become someone new/ Nothing I just did is anything I would do.”
There is the eldest Alison, stretching her arm across time and space to her past self, to her long-gone father (“Telephone Wire”), trying to correct history: “There must be some other chances/ there’s a moment I’m forgetting/ Where you tell me you see me.”
Fun Home is a musical about emotional relentlessness, trauma and becoming. It is a memoir reshaped from something read alone into an experience shared with a crowd. It’s also a haunted house. The Broadway production of Fun Home was staged in the round, inviting the audience to view both each other and the musical. Designer Alicia Clements captures a 360-degree view of the playing space and a sense of memory as shifting and unreliable by placing the set on a revolve. It’s the Bechdel family home. We never get out.
In the song “Maps”, Alison sings “Dad was born on this farm/ Here’s our house/ Here’s the spot where he died/I can draw a circle/ His whole life fits inside.”
The smallness of his life is not lost on us. But this design also serves as a circle of Alison’s own – her life is placed inside a single structure, her identity distilled. The revolve means Alison’s circle is restless – narratives close loops but this story isn’t so easily contained. The home occasionally morphs into new venues or slides to a new angle but each door leads us back to Maple Avenue. Just like in a dream.
In musicals, the songs are necessary elevation: the apex of experience and emotion. In Fun Home, the music shapes and orders Alison’s recollections. Tesori’s score is generous and elegiac but it hovers higher when it can – when we need it most – to offer hope. As musical director, Carmel Dean is the moon to the music’s tide, keeping the seven-piece band focused. Under her hands, the music sensitively creeps in and builds, or recedes softly like a natural forgetting.
With this cast, all expert interpreters, the story is told with nuance and care; their voices soar. Maunder’s energy is perhaps less grounded in butch identity than required but it is remarkably well judged – as the superego, she is a still point of surprising depth. Small Alison is the id of the trio, Medium the ego.
On opening night, Honeysett and McKenna channel whole worlds in short scenes. Murphy is a portrait of barely contained despair; he disintegrates before our eyes.
Marina Prior is an essential counterbalance as Alison’s mother, though perhaps she is the character most underserved by this production; you want the lights to foreground her for her single number (“Days and Days”) to bring her closer to the audience and finally give her the whole stage. But she is held back from us, and still Prior’s performance reaches out through this distance.
It’s always a joy to see musical theatre resist the easy wins of perfect plot resolution and emotional harmony. Fun Home offers up something else: a portrait of the happiness and sorrows that shape us as people, as families, as communities. We are what we feel.
Fun Home plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, until May 29.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 8, 2021 as "Home truths".
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