Near the top of the musical Fun Home, the central protagonist Alison turns to the audience and nonchalantly says: “Caption: Dad and I both grew up in the same, small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay, and I was gay, and he killed himself, and I became a lesbian cartoonist.”
Lucy Maunder and Adam Murphy in Fun Home. Photograph © Prudence Upton
There in a nutshell is the story we are about to be told, but it’s nowhere near as simple as those boldly stated facts. Instead, Alison, now a successful 43-year old cartoonist and graphic writer, takes us back and forth in time as she recalls scenes from her life as a child and a college student, while she gradually pieces together a graphic memoir.
In a way, it’s a double plot as her life and that of her father Bruce run parallel, interact and (crucially) diverge, when she openly embraces her sexuality and he tries to keep his hidden.
Fun Home is a beautiful, sensitive, insightful, innovative and heart-breaking musical, addressing themes including sexual identity, family, memory, truth and lies, and suicide. It is superbly staged and performed in this co-production between Sydney Theatre Company and Melbourne Theatre Company, directed by Dean Bryant.
Based on a 2006 graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, an acclaimed American cartoonist and graphic novelist, Fun Home features music by Jeanine Tesori (Shrek the Musical, Violet, Caroline, or Change) and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. It opened Off-Broadway in 2013 then transferred to the Circle in the Square Theatre in 2015, becoming the first Broadway musical to feature a lesbian protagonist. Nominated for 12 Tony Awards, it won five, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. It was also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The show is ingeniously structured, using a non-linear narrative that moves back and forth in time to amplify the theme of memory and the impact of our parents and family on who we become. On top of that, the musical uses three actors to play Alison – the cartoonist (Lucy Maunder), Medium Alison at college (Maggie McKenna), and Small Alison as a child (played on opening night by Mia Honeysett). They make an exceptional trio.
Mia Honeysett, Lucy Maunder and Maggie McKenna as the three Alisons in Fun Home. Photograph © Prudence Upton
The older Alison is on stage the entire time. When she is not performing herself, or describing each vignette with a caption, she is watching her two younger selves as she relives key moments from her past. We watch her share their emotion, confusion, pain and joy, and occasionally raise an eyebrow in amusement at some the things she wrote when she was younger.
Kron’s book and lyrics are smart and authentic. The writing feels honest, insightful and real as the characters reveal themselves through dialogue and song, which segue seamlessly, with plenty of whimsy, wit and humour along the way.
Musically, the show is beguiling with songs ranging from emotional ballads to ebullient numbers, such as the three children in a commercial they’ve written called Come to the Fun Home, complete with a coffin, and a routine called Raincoat of Love that draws on The Partridge Family, not to mention Medium Alison’s ecstasy after falling into bed with a student called Joan in Changing My Major (“I’m changing my major to sex with Joan/With a minor in kissing Joan”).
Bryant’s beautifully judged production unfolds on a set designed by Alicia Clements that cleverly moves between different locations and timeframes using a revolve. As the adult Alison, Maunder wheels her drawing desk with her, a device which isolates her in her own time, as her earlier life unfolds around her. Thus we find ourselves in the Pennsylvanian Victorian house that her father is restoring, filling it with vintage collectibles that he sources here, there and everywhere, and insists are kept polished and clean, in exact positions. There is an inspired design reveal when Medium Alison visits the house with her new girlfriend Joan.
The family home on Maple Avenue also houses the Bechdel Funeral Home – which the family call the Fun Home – since Bruce is not only a high school English teacher but runs the mortuary business left him by his father. We also see Alison finding her feet, and her sexuality, at college.
Emily Havea and Maggie McKenna in Fun Home. Photograph © Prudence Upton
Bryant has cast the show perfectly and elicits finely wrought performances from each of the actors.
Lucy Maunder gives an emotionally layered performance as the older Alison, that eventually breaks your heart. She is almost unrecognisable at first with her short hair and glasses, and the distinctive physicality she brings to the character, clad in shirt, trousers and Converse sneakers. The stillness she brings to the role has a quiet eloquence that draws you to her no matter what else is happening around her, and she sings with exquisite grace.
Adam Murphy brings an uptight, restless edginess to the conflicted Bruce, a complex man who on the surface seems obsessed with perfect family life but is slowly coming apart because of the lie he is living. At times, he is a good father – though Alison constantly yearns for more attention from him – but he constantly feels like a bomb ready to explode, lashing out when his tension rises.
The final car ride that Bruce and Maunder’s Alison share, as they struggle to discuss their sexuality and relationship, is heartbreaking.
Maggie McKenna is gorgeously goofy and wonderfully funny as Medium Alison. She emanates touching confusion, awkwardness and heart as Alison comes of age, and comes out. Vocally she is in radiant form, bringing the house down with Changing My Major.
As Small Alison, Mia Honeysett is a little dynamo, giving an exuberant performance and nailing it vocally, particularly in the song Ring of Keys in which she admires the “swagger and bearing” of a woman she spots who is utterly comfortable in her shirt, dungarees and lace-up boots.
Maggie McKenna, Lucy Maunder and Marina Prior in Fun Home. Photograph © Prudence Upton
Marina Prior gives a sensitive performance as Bruce’s long-suffering wife Helen, who is pushed to the side and kept in the background by her husband, expected to look after the children and keep the house and its knickknacks clean and polished. She eventually breaks out with a moving number Days and Days, revealing she is all too aware of what has been going on.
Emily Havea is brilliant and shiny as the confident Joan and Ryan Gonzalez does a terrific job delineating the various young men that Bruce tries to seduce. Gilbert Bradman and Jensen Mazza who played Alison’s brothers John and Christian in opening night cast also give delightful performances. Hats off as well to Musical Director Carmel Dean, who leads a seven-strong band, bringing the score to vibrant life.
Fun Home is an unusual, beautiful musical that moves you to laughter and tears. This production does it justice and then some.
Fun Home runs at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until 29 May