Take tissues and don’t wear mascara. Your tear-ducts are probably not going to survive the last thirty minutes of the Young Vic‘s exquisite production of Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron‘s Fun Home. I mean, not that I generally wear mascara myself, but if I had I’d have emerged from the theatre looking like a distressed panda, and that isn’t a good look for anyone who isn’t a panda. Based on Alison Bechdel’s peerless autobiographical graphic novel, Fun Home is sweet, sharp, charming coming-of-age story, but it’s also a coming-out story, and (eventually) a shattering examination of the degrees to which we can ever truly understand our parents.
On top of that, it’s a masterclass in how to distill the essence of a full-length novel into an hour and forty minutes of stage time. Lisa Kron’s admirably clear-eyed book separates Bechdel’s coming-of-age story into three separate timelines: the adult Alison (Kaisa Hammarlund) tries to understand the chain of events that led her father (Zubin Varla) to commit suicide, Medium Alison (Eleanor Kane) leaves home for college and the discovery of her own sexuality is quickly followed by a conversation with her mother Helen (Jenna Russell) which includes a shocking revelation about her father’s, and Small Alison (Harriet Turnbull at the performance I saw) navigates her father’s severe, apparently inexplicable mood swings and experiences her first moment, which she doesn’t quite understand, of identification with a strong, butch woman. On paper it sounds painfully earnest, and it isn’t; it begins as a truthful, funny exploration of family dynamics, and then the show somehow sneaks up on you. Despite the three separate narrative strands, the storytelling is absolutely clear throughout, and Kron and Tesori guide us through Alison’s complicated emotional landscape with remarkable precision.
There are two lynchpins holding the show together. One is Jeanine Tesori’s beautiful score, which functions less as a series of standalone numbers (although there are a few very fine standalone numbers) and more as a kind of continuous texture which moves seamlessly from dialogue to recitative to song and back again. You won’t get the kind of Big Melodies you’ll find in something like Les Misérables, but you might get your heart broken – and you also might well come out of the theatre humming ‘Ring of Keys’, Small Alison’s glorious anthem of self-discovery. And you might very well need those tissues during ‘Days and Days’, Helen Bechdel’s devastating aria about how she’s spent her life burying her feelings for the good of her family. It’s a model of musical and lyrical restraint, probably the best thing in the show, and it’s all the more moving because it’s so carefully buttoned-down. The show’s other lynchpin – surprisingly, given that it’s a relatively small role – is Jenna Russell’s quietly stoical Helen Bechdel, whose sacrifices for her family become clear in the last third of the show. There are few fireworks in Russell’s extraordinary performance, but she somehow, without grandstanding, manages to find every last scrap of subtext in a character who keeps nearly everything buried beneath the surface.
But then, under Sam Gold’s careful direction, the performances across the board are ideal. Kaisa Hammarlund is as right for Alison as she was wrong for Sweet Charity, and she brings both warmth and humour to Alison’s growing understanding that she enjoys a freedom her closeted father never experienced. Eleanor Kane makes Medium Alison’s journey of sexual self-discovery sweet as well as funny, and her (brilliant) musical number charting her sexual awakening with a fellow college student – ‘Changing My Major’ – is the closest this show comes to a bravura showstopper. Zubin Varla is both (appropriately) slightly creepy and exceptionally moving as Alison’s father Bruce, presenting a man who can never quite find the courage to be who he knows he is, and who can’t always stop himself from taking out his frustrations on the people around him. Harriet Turnbull is a perfectly charming Small Alison, and her ‘Ring of Keys’ is lovely. The ensemble performances are flawless, and so is the small band. As I said, Gold’s production is exquisite.
It looks exquisite too, thanks to David Zinn’s less-minimalist-than-it-first-seems set. Judging from production photographs, this does not appear to be an exact recreation of Gold’s two previous proscenium stagings of the show (at the Public Theater in New York, and subsequently for a US tour; the Broadway production played at Circle in the Square, and was therefore staged in the round). The show moves from a carefully fluid scenic concept in which various locations – the Bechdel home, the yard outside, the family funeral home which gives the show its title, the adult Alison’s work desk – are suggested via minimal furnishings on an essentially bare stage, to a carefully-detailed (and gorgeous) recreation of the living-room of the historical house – almost a museum – Bruce has spent his life restoring. You don’t come to this kind of show for the spectacle, but the revelation of the house’s interior is a dazzling visual coup; Ben Stanton’s lighting, meanwhile, does an admirable job of keeping the show’s three timelines distinct in the moments when they all occupy the stage simultaneously.
In fact, there really isn’t anything much here to criticise. This is an impeccable production of impeccable writing; you won’t get the sort of verbal and musical pyrotechnics you’ll find at this year’s other big musical import from Broadway – but stunning as it is, there’s nothing in that show as moving as ‘Days and Days’. I confess, I still think Caroline, or Change is Tesori’s masterpiece – but this is up there in the same league, and it’s certainly as good a new American musical as anyone has written in the last twenty years.
So… now that we’ve seen superlative productions of this and Caroline, or Change in London, can somebody please bring us a full-scale professional revival of Violet?