Review - Fun Home at the Young Vic
First and most obviously what it is not: Fun Home isn't Hamilton. Though it originated at the same New York hit factory, the Public, in 2013 - two years ahead of Hamilton there - Fun Home is in a different, more domestic register entirely. But it is also every bit as ground-breaking and surprising, giving a rare and thrilling musical voice to a young lesbian cartoonist's autobiographically-inspired rites of passage.
It is not often that such a personal, intimate lesbian story makes its way centre stage to Broadway, where this show transferred in 2015, and unexpectedly won that year's Tony Award for Best Musical. So serious kudos to its creative team of composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist/lyricist Lisa Kron (who both also won Tony's for their work) and director Sam Gold, for such an accessible and gorgeous achievement.
And kudos, too, to the Young Vic, for offering a home for its London premiere. Like the Public itself, this is a theatre rooted in its community, yet making bold, internationalist work; it is the last show programmed by the last artistic director David Lan, and if (as is expected and deserved) it transfers to the West End, it will mean that each of his final mainstage shows have made that journey, joining the current transfer of The Jungle and the September one for The Inheritance.
It is also a show that gave me my biggest surprise of the year so far: I waited and waited for Kaisa Hammarlund - a performer who has been steadily rising through the theatrical ranks and gave a break-out star-making performance in the title role of Sweet Charity at Manchester's Royal Exchange in 2016 - to appear, until I finally realised that she was onstage the entire time, playing the oldest version of Alison, the protagonist whose childhood memories the show replays of growing up gay in Pennsylvania home. I should have checked the cast list before I went in, I know; but what a thrill to see such a chameleon transformation! She is literally unrecognisable, though the talent isn't: I'd also spent the evening thinking, who is that marvellous actor?
It's an alternately fierce and tender portrait of a young woman warily watching as she grows into herself (her youngest self is played by a rotating team of three young actors, while her middle college age self is played by Eleanor Kane). But while she is pretty sure of the direction she's travelling in, this isn't just a conventional coming out story; instead, and rather wonderfully, it is also the story of her discovery of her own father's suppressed homosexuality, which he furtively plays out in affairs and cruising encounters with men.
The piece is seen through Alison's lens; but there's no escaping the wrenching pain and consequences for her neglected mother Helen, superbly embodied by a stoical Jenna Russell (it's a shame she has only one solo song, "Days and Days", but she brings such a thrilling intensity to it that I could have listened to it for days and days). The husband and father, who runs the family funeral home of the title and is also a local English school teacher, is played with alternate notes of charm and suppressed anguish by Zubin Varla.
Jeanine Tesori, its lauded composer whose Caroline, or Change (also first seen at the Public) is transferring to the West End later this year as well after receiving its UK premiere at Chichester last year, is one of Broadway's most chameleon-like musical theatre voices, and here supplies an intricate score – heart-breaking and hilarious by turns - that anchor the show's emotional energy.
Lisa Kron's book magnificently lifts the graphic novel cartoons by Alison Bechdel that it is based on into scintillating 3D life. As a side-note, Bechdel is also the original creator of the Bechdel test, a formula to test representations of women in literature and the arts, asking whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The irony, of course, is that the figure of her gay father looms larger in this story than any other. But it is also a show of aching, heartfelt tenderness, daring and caring.
Photo credit Marc Brenner