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Fun Home at the Young Vic, London – review round-up

Look out. Here comes the next American musical sensation. With Hamilton [1] firmly up and running in the West End, The King And I [2] just around the corner, and Come From Away winging its way across the Atlantic in January [3], it’s time for Fun Home, the award-winning adaptation of cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphic autobiography.

Fun Home, the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist, chronicles Bechdel’s childhood and early adolescent life, her difficulties coming out, and her complicated relationship with her gay father. It originally ran at New York’s Public Theater, before transferring to Broadway, where it won five awards at the 2015 Tonys [4]. Now it’s over here, at the Young Vic until September.

It’s got a book by Lisa Kron, music from Jeanine Tesori [5], who wrote the award-winning score for Tony Kushner’s Caroline, Or Change, direction from Sam Gold, and a UK cast including Kaisa Hammarlund, Jenna Russell, and Cherrelle Skeet.

But will this Broadway banger make it big across the pond? Do Kron and Tesori do justice to Bechdel’s much-loved memoir? Did the critics have fun at Fun Home?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

Fun Home – From Sketch To Stage

Bechdel subtitled her book “a family tragicomic”, blending laughter with tears as she delved into her past. How well do Kron, Tesori and Gold recapture that on stage?

“In a quiet, deeply sentimental and desperately moving way, this is an incredibly radical show,” writes Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★★ [6]). “Crafted as a rough patchwork of narrative, scenes occur in the manner of memory: disordered and strangely tinted. Adult Alison watches younger versions of herself, both as a child and a university student, and comes to terms with her father’s apparent suicide.”

“Summed up like that, it doesn’t sound a barrel of laughs,” points out Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★★ [7]). “But the truly remarkable thing about this show is just how funny, true and touching it is. It reaches a level of emotional honesty that other musicals just don’t begin to touch.”

“It is a remarkable story, with remarkable performers, that’s even more remarkable for its structure – spinning and swirling and ducking and diving in kaleidoscopic fragments, with the ‘songs’ often just beautifully elevated snatches of dialogue,” adds Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★★ [8]). “It bustles with all the energy and joy of nostalgia and discovery of life, almost ebulliently whirling to its final point of tragedy.”

Fun Home is “a refreshingly unconventional 100-minute show” that’s “eloquent about the mysteries of the parent-child bond”, according to Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★ [9]), “a profound and entertaining evening” that’s “haunting but fun”, according to Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★★ [10]), and “an exquisite adaptation”, according to Marianka Swain (Arts Desk, ★★★★★ [11]).

“All families have secrets,” writes Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★ [12]). “All children grow up not knowing who their parents really are. This musical, delightfully and movingly, shows us how memory can goad us to an understanding of events beyond our control.”

“It takes the stage musical in new directions and shows it can match the piercing directness of the graphic novel,” concludes Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★ [13]).

Fun Home – Scoring High

Jeanine Tesori is perhaps the most significant female composer in Broadway history. She won a Drama Desk Award in 2004 for her Caroline, Or Change score, and a Tony Award in 2015 for Fun Home. But do the British critics love her music as much as their American counterparts?

“There’s an incredible generosity to Tesori’s straining music, full of uncompleted lines and suspended notes,” writes Bano. “It’s all about how it can best express story and character rather than show off a show tune.”

“Tesori’s score is remarkable for the suppleness and spontaneity with which it searches for emotional truth rather than cater for traditional Broadway ‘slots’,” agrees Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★★ [14]). “Robust when it needs to be, it’s a sensitive – often transportingly beautiful – tissue of linked leitmotifs and achingly suspended harmonies, exquisitely performed here by Nigel Lilley and his six-piece band.”

“Tesori’s delicate web of a score weaves around the action,” chimes Swain. “Aside from a couple of pastiche set-pieces – the Bechdel kids doing a hilarious Jackson Five-type commercial for their funeral home; Alison imagining her fractured clan united in Partridge Family perfection – it’s more a series of leitmotifs, yearning, searching, left hanging and then picked up again.”

“An obvious charge against the show is that it lacks a host of instantly memorable numbers; the counter is that it’s more than the sum of its parts, reflecting experience in all its complexity,” considers Cavendish. “One glorious mock Jackson Five number, in which the little Bechtels gleefully cavort around a casket, replicates the endorphin rush of early, heedless youth, while some of the ballads are as poignant funeral orations, lamenting the death of dreams.”

“What most impresses, however, is Tesori’s ability (as in Caroline, or Change) to shift musical registers,” agrees Billington. “She can weave a song out of a conversational line as when the student Alison, on falling in love, buoyantly sings, “I’m changing my major to Joan.” But Tesori can also write multi-part ensembles in which the family clan explore their different dilemmas.”

It’s safe to say Tesori’s score is just as enchanting in London as it was in New York, then. Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★★★★ [15]) calls it “heart-breaking and hilarious by turns” and Hitchings labels it “a finely woven blend of yearning, suspenseful dissonance and euphoric fantasy.”

Fun Home composer Jeanine Tesori: ‘Musicals are slippery, but I love the puzzle of them’ [5]

Fun Home – Acting Alison

Fun Home splits its protagonist in three – an adult Alison, a student Alison, and a young Alison. How do these three Alisons fare in the reviews? And what about the rest of the cast?

“Each of the Alisons is superb,” asserts Bano. “From Brooke Haynes’ small Alison (alternating with Harriet Turnbull) working out she’s gay in the sublime Ring of Keys, to Eleanor Kane’s gabbling and awkward medium Alison finding a girlfriend, to Kaisa Hammarlund as the adult version, gentle and assured.”

“Kaisa Hammarlund, as the mature Alison, has the permanent watchfulness of the visual artist, Eleanor Kane as her student-self blossoms memorably, and Brooke Haynes shows astonishing assurance as the small Alison,” agrees Billington.

There’s plenty of love too for Zubin Varla as Alison’s dad Bruce. He “radiates a charismatic but toxic mix of narcissism and self-loathing”, according to Taylor, and “catches perfectly the contradictions of a man who is both intellectually assertive and emotionally hesitant”, according to Billington.

“Varla magnificently conveys both his generosity and the terrible internal conflicts that make him try to override his daughter’s individuality,” concludes Crompton. “The scene where he fights against the temptation to seduce a teenage boy, with darting eyes and a constantly pursed mouth is characteristic of the subtlety of his entire performance.”

And lest we forget, Jenna Russell is also showered in praise as well. She’s “devastating” for Taylor, displays “great heart and soul” for Treneman, and brings “a thrilling intensity” for Shenton.

There are particular nods towards her solo number Days and Days. It’s “one of the productions most moving moments” according to Bano, while Shenton simply muses that he “could have listened to it for days and days”.

“Russell is a first-rate musical theatre actor, and initially it almost seems perverse how little singing she actually does,” comments Lukowski. “But when she’s suddenly allowed to let rip, it’s the greatest special effect; the sudden, effortless sound of her voice like some unimaginably exotic fragrance uncorked from a hitherto unconsidered bottle.”

Jenna Russell in Fun Home at the Young Vic, London. Photo: Marc Brenner

Fun Home – Is it any good?

Oh yes, it’s good. The final show of David Lan’s programming at the Young Vic is yet another smash-hit for the theatre, following hot on the heels of The Inheritance [17] and The Jungle [18], both now West End-bound. It seems overwhelmingly likely that Fun Home will be joining them across town soon.

Fun Home is expertly adapted from Bechdel’s graphic memoir into a touching, time-hopping exploration of family life, it has a sublime, subtly revolutionary score from Jeanine Tesori, and it boasts a rack of fine performances from Hammarlund, Kane, Varla and Russell. The five-star reviews have come flooding in.