Memory is a funny, beautiful thing. One minute its immediacy can catch you by surprise, the next it can leave you wondering if things really happened that way at all.
In Sydney Theatre Company and Melbourne Theatre Company’s wondrous co-production of Fun Home, the elations and pains of cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s personal recollections are laid out bare on stage, as her fictional self grapples with burning questions of identity and truth – particularly pertaining to her relationship with her closeted and gay father.
Adapted by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) from Bechdel’s eponymous 2008 graphic memoir, the show opened on Broadway as the first mainstream musical to feature a young lesbian protagonist, collecting five Tony awards, including best musical. That watershed moment merely touched upon the show’s innovative approach to its subject material, and this gorgeous Australian premiere, under the direction Dean Bryant, is a production infused with the sweeping emotion of its source material.
The scene is set in the family home in small-town Pennsylvania, where Alison spent her childhood but also where her parents ran the family business, the Bechdel Funeral Home. In one of the first musical numbers, Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue, the family – consisting of Small Alison (played by Karelina Clarke, a role also shared with Katerina Kotsopoulos and Mia Honeysett), her siblings, Christian and John (shared by six actors), alongside mother Helen (Marina Prior) and father, Bruce (Adam Murphy) – sing: “Everything is balanced and serene / Like chaos never happens if it’s never seen.”
It’s an image of a picture-perfect family trying to hold it together, inside an old house restored to 19th century perfectionism. But it’s an image quickly shattered thanks to Bruce’s quick temper, the family’s lives revolving around his charming yet erratic personality.
The show plays out in nonlinear fashion at 100 minutes, switching between three versions of Alisons at different ages: the nine-year old Small Alison, the 19-year-old Medium Alison starting out in Oberlin College (Maggie McKenna), and as a 43-year-old cartoonist (Lucy Maunder). Adult Alison retrospectively tries to piece together her old journal entries and fragmented recollections, preserving them in her cartoons because she “can’t trust memory”.
She hangs back, watching her younger selves, sometimes inserting witty commentary; other times, she contradicts herself. “Caption,” she says over a childhood memory of Bruce lifting Small Alison up on to the balls of his feet. “My dad and I were exactly alike,” she says, then changes her mind. “My dad and I were nothing alike.”
With Bryant at the helm, the production holds dearly on to Fun Home’s depiction of an artist’s attempt to grasp at the elusive reasoning behind her father’s death – an incident that opens the show. It’s a harrowing place to begin, but it’s tactfully and shrewdly pulled apart by the director, his cast and creative team.
The show finds candid sincerity in Alison’s desperate endeavours to discover and probe into the parallels between her father and herself, especially within her own illuminating journey of coming out – and later, learning about the shame surrounding his sexuality. Tesori and Kron’s light touch lets the work soar to sky limits. It shifts remarkably between light and shade, sweet and aching moments, haunting dissonance and perfect harmony.
Musical director Carmel Dean’s tight control of her seven-piece chamber orchestra allows each of her instruments to sing out, from the strings’ pizzicato to the English horn’s recurring motifs. The songs play occasionally at a slower tempo than the original Broadway cast recording, which, while drawing out the musical’s pacing slightly more than necessary, brings a new clarity and detail to the score.
The three Alisons, though, are the shining lights of this production. Clarke conveys a pure innocence to Small Alison, who bursts in adoring identification with a butch delivery woman in Ring of Keys. McKenna is a joy to watch in Medium Alison’s fumbling adolescence, embodying her giddy exhilaration after having sex with a woman for the first time (Changing My Major). And Maunder warmly brings out a mature, yet equally devastating realisation of slipping time and heart-wrenching loss in Telephone Wire.
As Bruce, Murphy finely carries the balance between his character’s captivating charisma and his repressed vulnerability. Prior’s performance elegantly nails his wife’s frustrations at her unhappy marriage, though her stiff delivery sometimes gets in the way of her strong vocals, especially in the moving 11 o’clock ballad expressing this long-suffering regret, Days and Days.
Alicia Clements’ set design is spectacular, transforming the Bechdel house into 360-degree turning grandeur. On Broadway, the show made use of theatre-in-the-round to capture the intimacy between the audience and the family circle. In the Roslyn Packer Theatre in Sydney, Bryant’s staging artfully navigates Clements’ design with his own characters’ emotional states: the space feels increasingly bigger and emptier as adult Alison grows more uncertain of the picture she had of her father.
Because we’ve been made privy to Alison’s memories, Fun Home doesn’t just find a way to worm itself into your heart, but with its wholesome love and ambiguous imperfections, it also manages to stay there.
• Fun Home is on in Sydney until 29 May and will open in Melbourne in early 2022