Two arpeggios start Fun Home, like a tune a child would play after their first piano lesson. Suddenly they attach themselves to broad, suspended harmonies, the childlike texture sitting on top of something more adult. Meetings like that – of young and grown-up – make up this whole show, an extraordinary musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel about growing up and coming out.
In a quiet, deeply sentimental and desperately moving way, this is an incredibly radical show. Written by two women, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, it was the first Broadway show to feature a lesbian protagonist when it played there in 2015, and it takes the Rodgers and Hammerstein idea of the ‘integrated musical’ to the next level.
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.
There’s an incredible generosity to Tesori’s straining music, full of uncompleted lines and suspended notes. It’s all about how it can best express story and character rather than show off a show tune. That’s not to say it doesn’t have those too – all three Alisons get a stunning song, and the final half-hour doesn’t let chills leave the body for an instant.
But it’s such a delicate piece, directed by Sam Gold accordingly. Apart from two big numbers, there’s never too much action on stage. There’s a revolve, but it’s used sparingly. Gold simply accentuates the words and music, with no more flash than that.
Each of the Alisons is superb: 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.
The show tackles the hardships of coming out, but also moves beyond that narrative. It’s much more about parenthood, and families as places where micro tyrannies – like that of Alison’s dad Bruce – can have devastating effects. The dark heart of the show is Zubin Varla as Bruce. With growling voice and slightly affected air, he’s a knot of self-disgust and self-obsession.
Jenna Russell’s performance as Alison’s mum Helen provides one of the production’s most moving moments. She’s like a stone wall, impenetrable, her eyes always pointed at the floor. She’s had to suck up all the embarrassments and injustices thrown at her by her husband, and you can almost see the way they’ve thickened her skin but also worn her down.
What’s so wonderful about the adaptation is the details of Bechdel’s novel it picks up on. At the same time as it evokes all the confusion and sadness in the book, it also quietly revolutionises the musical form. Add to that an exquisite set, beautifully lit, and you get, quite simply, a staggering work of art.