“come to the fun home”
The above statement is both a song title from the show as well as the best way I can think to describe my love for it.
The musical was first previewed on Broadway back in 2013 and ran for four months, before closing at the beginning of 2014. I first heard the music when Sydney Lucas sang “Ring of Keys” at the Drama Desk Awards in 2014 and I honestly fell in love with the song. I listened to the soundtrack a little and wasn’t immediately caught but once I’d given it a bit more of my attention I really came to like the music. So, once I’d fallen in love with the soundtrack and sort of understood the story from listening to it, I was thrilled when I heard it was coming to London.
Fun Home tells the true story of Alison Bechdel as she grows up and learns the truth of her father’s suicide as well as recalling how she discovered her own sexuality. The narrative is explained by Alison, age 43, and on stage she witnesses herself growing up through two key stages of her life: her childhood – roughly age 10 and when she first goes to college – roughly age 18. I think, as a starting point, this was cleverly written as it can be argued that these three ages are really crucial in a person’s development in life: childhood, the turning point from teen to adult, and midlife.
The show opens with Alison (Kaisa Hammarlund) explaining that when starting to write and draw about her life, her memories come back to her, mainly the memories including her father. The show cleverly sets the stage as a flashback by having both Alison and Young Alison (Brooke Haynes) on stage at the same time, both holding the same teapot in the same pose. I have to say, this parallelism that ran throughout the show to ensure the audience understood the timeline was brilliantly executed.
I thought the whole show was put together so well and the use of a small theatre made the show intimate – as if Alison was really letting you into her life and sharing all her secrets. Although I was sat on the very far right, I really felt the show was being performed right at me because of this intense setting.
As well as this, what I thought was cleverly done to remind us that this was all based on Alison’s memory was the small casting. For example, when a woman comes to visit the house, there isn’t no actress in this role and instead Bruce Bechdel (Zubin Varla) is simply talking to the air. I assumed this would reflect Alison’s memory in the way that she would never have remembered who this woman was who visited the house, what she looked like or what she wore. The fact that the direction of the play left this open I thought was really well crafted.
The subtlety with which some themes are brought to tell and deliver the story is also expert. The way some scenes were left without a conclusion or direct ending left some aspects to the imagination, and also potentially again reflects Alison’s memory or understanding. For example, the scene that ends with Alison’s father offering a beer to one of his students and then another scene mentioning that he has to see a psychiatrist for a previous incident did leaves it up to the audience to imagine what happened between the father and the student. This technique was used multiple times and I thought it was a brilliant way of telling the story without completely spelling it out for the audience.
The soundtrack is beautifully written to reflect how life is a mixture of both good and bad. Although general narrative of the show is generally quite heart-wrenching, there are plenty of funny moments, humorous songs and uplifting scenes, to remind us that there is still good in difficult situations. Songs such as “Come to the Fun Home”, “Changing my Major” and “Raincoat of Love” bring a sense of fun to what can be seen as a difficult show to watch. Alison has a difficult relationship with her father as she constantly wants his approval but also wants her own identity that he refuses to accept. The atmosphere, therefore, is often tense, so the inclusion of a few light-hearted numbers keeps the show engaging and entertaining rather than draining.
What surprised me when watching the show is that my least favourite song on the soundtrack turned out to be one of my favourite ones performed. Eleanor Kane – who plays Medium Alison – performed “Changing my Major” in ways I could have never have predicted. Her awkwardness came across as nothing but endearing and humorous – rather than my perception of the song as slightly irritating.
As well as “Changing my Major”, “Telephone Wire” was one of my favourite songs in the show. It was quite simply unbelievable. It helps that I loved this song before even saw it performed, but I simply cannot explain how much this rendition blew me away. To say I couldn’t take my eyes off Kaira Hammarlund during this song would be an understatement – I don’t think I even blinked during the performance because I was transfixed.The song is full of raw emotion and is about Alison searching for a moment or memory to show that she bonded with her father, before realising that this connection she craved so badly was never made. Hammarlund’s vocals and general performance was heartbreakingly perfect to reflect Alison’s refusal to believe that there was never a moment where her father accepts her.
My only real criticism of the show I think stems from the fact that I listened to the soundtrack too much, and my expectations may have been slightly too high. I was disappointed to say that both songs I was looking forward to the most “Days and Days” and “Edges of the World” didn’t match my expectation from what I’d heard on the soundtrack. I felt like each rendition didn’t quite have enough power behind them to really “wow” me and give me goosebumps, yet I still found myself crying, so maybe I’m being too harsh. Even so, I wish they blew me away more than they actually did.
I think both Eleanor Kane and Cherrelle Skeete – who plays Joan – were my favourite actors in the show. Eleanor Kane was so real in her performance of an awkward, coming-of-age teen and I don’t see how she could have done a better job in characterising Medium Alison. Faultless performance. While Cherrelle Skeete’s stage time wasn’t huge, I felt her stage presence was something to be awed. Whenever she was on stage, she owned it and had control over every situation. Her character is slightly quiet yet powerful and I think Skeete’s body language really brought that across. I am of the opinion that this is also helped by the way Kane and Skeete bounce off each other because Medium Alison and Joan are different characters: Joan is silently confident while Medium Alison is loudly awkward. The way Skeete and Kane brought these character’s personalities through their interaction I thought was quietly brilliant.
I must also mention, however, that Kaisa Hammarlund’s character development cannot be forgotten. Alison goes on a journey through this show, firstly by explaining the easy and fun memories of her childhood with her siblings and other light-hearted memories, before recalling harder aspects of her life such as her coming out as gay to her family and struggling to come to terms with her father’s suicide and her mother’s miserable marriage, and finally resulting in her acceptance of her life and her family’s outcome. Hammarlund’s acting skills take the audience on a journey with her as Alison learns these new things about herself before accepting them.
The finale of the show, that has all three Alison’s singing a song in which harmonies collide so beautifully, tells the audience that Alison has found peace with her history and leaves the audience feeling somewhat happy, somewhat sad, but all together touched.
So, on it’s last day in London for now, I can only hope I hear rumours of a West End transfer sooner rather than later because I can’t think of a more powerful and deserving show to grace the stage again.