A Family Affair

Rating: 5

Fun Home

by Georgina Brown

In 2006, the acclaimed illustrator Alison Bechdel published fun home, a graphic memoir. She subtitled it a ‘family tragicomic’, the true story of three children growing up in small-town Pennsylvania. Their father, Bruce, has an expert eye for finding treasures in junk shops with which he lovingly furnishes their mansion. He is also an English teacher at the local high school and runs the fun home, the family undertaking business where the children cheerfully hide in burnished caskets.

But what appears to be ‘a typical family quintet’ – with everyone singing from the same page in a house filled with gleaming antiques, neatly arranged, and a funeral home where perfectionist Bruce (a creepy, controlling, tense and troubled Zubin Varla) makes people ‘look peaceful in death’ – is anything but. For Bruce has illicit affairs with men, some of them teenagers, something Alison only discovers when she goes away to college and comes out as gay. When her father throws himself in front of a truck shortly afterward, he leaves one hell of an emotional mess behind him.

I’m not spilling beans here, for all this emerges very early on in Sam Gold’s fluent, Tony-award-winning production of the wonderfully quirky musical adaptation by Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music), which powerfully captures the tragicomic tone of the piece, switching seamlessly from major to minor, merriment to misery, as well as through three timeframes.

Now playing at the Young Vic, with an outstanding British cast, Alison (a strikingly watchful Kaisa Hammarlund), a cartoonist, wanders down memory lane, scribbling in her sketchbook, and scenes and conversations emerge. ‘I want to know what’s true,’ she sings. ‘Dig deep into who and what and why and when, until now gives way to then.’

It can be heartfelt, piercingly so when Alison’s mother (the excellent Jenna Russell) sings days and days, in which she explains how she kept everything balanced and serene, taking one day at a time. ‘I didn’t raise you to give away your days like me,’ she warns her daughter. But it can also be fun. As children, Small Alison (a show-stopping Harriet Turnbull) and her brother and sister would leap on to coffins to perform a Jackson five-style song-and-dance commercial: ‘we’ve got Kleenex and your choice of psalm. Think of Bechdel when you need to embalm.’

The song ring of keys goes back to that first moving, magical, momentous day of recognition when Small Alison, who hates dresses, sees a kindred spirit in a woman wearing dungarees and boots. In a wonderfully witty number, Medium Alison falls joyously in love with a fellow student and wakes up waxing lyrically: ‘I’m changing my Major to Joan.’ A thoroughly modern memoir makes for a fabulously original, life-affirming theatre.

Until 1 September, Young Vic, London SE1: 020-7922 2922, www.youngvic.org