Photos – Jeff Busby

A female composer and a female playwright base a musical on a novel by a female cartoonist and create the first Broadway Musical with a Lesbian at its centre. Add a string of Tony awards to the creative team credentials and the straplines on the theatre marquee start fighting for space.

While the show's amazing lineage makes it a publicist’s dream, Fun Home is so much more than a gendered headline; it's an incredibly beautiful, original, and uplifting piece of theatre.

With music by Jeanine Tesori and book & lyrics by Lisa Kron, the original Broadway Production opened in 2015 and was nominated for twelve Tony Awards, winning five including Best Musical.

In a most welcome save from MTC's tragically unlucky season of 2021, this co-production with Sydney Theatre Company has leapfrogged to become a season 2022 highlight and an absolute triumph for Director Dean Bryant.

Based on the 2006 bestselling graphic novel and memoir by cartoonist, Alison Bechdel, this is an open, honest, and reflective account of growing up and the writer’s retrospective quest to make sense of her family and in particular, the complex relationship she had with her troubled and closeted father.

This cleverly constructed non-linear memory play moves seamlessly between past and present and while not every family holds these kinds of secrets, what resonates so strongly here is the importance of saying the things. Through truth and disclosure, there is perhaps a chance to alleviate the pain silence inadvertently inflicts upon those who, for their own lives, ultimately need answers.

Every element of this production is exceptional.

Every performance as compelling and as strong as the next. Rarely do you see such equity on stage, a testimony of course to the remarkable talents of each individual but also the cohesion that can only be attributed to the director. Meanwhile, Alicia Clements wonderfully detailed and clever revolving set supports this time orientated narrative perfectly. It’s all there.

Three actors share the role of Alison, each playing different and significant stages of her life with present day Alison recalling, commentating, and observing her story while scanning every vignette for oversight and on occasion, painfully willing different outcomes from events and conversations.

Lucy Maunder is simply outstanding as present-day Alison. Vocally stunning, witty, and honest. In what feels like a mutual taking of hands, she guides us and Alison to a place of realisation and peace. This is an intelligent powerful performance, gritty and angry in places, warm and beautifully generous in others.

Fun Home is Alison Bechdel’s story, an account of her most visceral and shaping moments but what drives her from the outset to look back on her life so keenly is the gaps of understanding she has around her father. Every scene is additional evidence needed to reach her “Rare moment of perfect balance” conclusion. While the narrative doesn’t attempt to bypass some her father’s less favourable behaviours and qualities, traits are shared with objectivity and even kindness, a search for reason and motivation over blame. So much of the narrative informs us about Bruce Bechdel and Adam Murphy portraying him is extraordinary. A beautiful voice in the first instance and a thoroughly considered portrayal of a troubled yet dignified man. Everything we learn of this character though others, we then see in this incredible performance.

As Medium Alison, Ursula Searle is joyous in allowing us to see exactly who Alison was at this pivotal point of discovery and awakening. Vibrant and full of youthful optimism, her delivery and timing is spot on throughout, particularly in one of the show’s best numbers “Changing my Major”.

Fun Home offers three young actors an incredible platform and Sophie Isaac, Jai D’Alessandro and Sebastian Sero on opening night were exceptional. Maybe it’s an underestimation of children, or perhaps even those charged with their direction, but it’s impossible not to be astounded by these performances and indeed by those capable of extracting this level of performance from them. While fun and energy abound in the trio’s show stopping ‘Come to the Fun Home,’ it is the incredible ‘Ring of Keys’ performed by Small Alison that bravely, sensitively and profoundly elevates the entire show. There is of course a risk of controversy (and there really shouldn’t be) involved in acknowledging a youngster’s discovery of sexuality and attraction, particularly when that attraction is to the same sex. ‘Ring of Keys’ beautifully captures this moment in a way that is powerful and defining and by this young actor on opening night, superbly handled.

While Fun Home seeks to understand and even forgive Bruce Bechdel, it doesn’t by any means overlook the impact his far from discreet indiscretions have on his wife Helen. This role could so easily have been served up as the collateral damage of a man’s double life and overshadowed by the narratives main thrust. Instead, the character is honoured and afforded the score’s most beautiful song, ‘Days and Days’ and Silvie Paladino as Helen Bechdel is phenomenal. With her trademark powerhouse vocals, she brings so much depth, dignity, and visible pain to this character.

As Alison’s love interest Joan, Emily Havea is simply incredible in bringing forth real dimension to a character lacking much written back story. Strong, present, funny, cool, deep voiced and frankly everything Alison needed to fall in love.

And finally, across a multitude of smaller and important supporting roles, Euan Fistrovic Doidge, was considered and thorough in each.

If the calibre of this work is a direct result of the additional time it’s taken to get it to stage, then some of that hideous frustration has been worth it.

We don’t employ a star rating system here at Australian Stage, but if we did, for this outstanding production, we’d most definitely need a few more.

Event details

Melbourne Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company, in association with Midsumma Festival presents
Fun Home
music Jeanine Tesori | book & lyrics Lisa Kron | based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel

Director Dean Bryant

Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse
Dates: 7 Feb – 5 Mar 2022

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