A poignant and amusing slice of life musical, it is not hard to see why Fun Home received five Tony Awards for the original Broadway production. That included Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score. Now, fortunately, Melbourne Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company have picked it up and done a wonderful job with it. In fact, so much so, that it is amongst my favourite MTC productions of all time. It really is that good.
Alison Bechdel (Lucy Maunder) is a 43-year-old lesbian cartoonist who is trying to make sense of the relationship she had with her father, Bruce (Adam Murphy). That involves looking back at her life when she was 10 (as played alternately by Flora Feldman, Sophie Isaac and Teja Kingi) and, again, as a newly minted college student (Ursula Searle). Through three generations of Alisons, we gain further insight, as she sets about finding her place in the world.
Bruce was an intelligent and complicated man, driven by his sexual impulses. An English teacher and undertaker, who took pride in his work, home restoration and period detail was a passion for him, as was good literature. Alison and her brothers, John (played alternately by Luka and Sebastian Sero) and Christian (played alternately by Jai D’Alessandro, Edgar Stirling and Aidan Synan), grew up helping their father polish the caskets.
When they were first married, Bruce and his wife Helen (Silvie Paladino) lived in Germany, where Bruce was in the army. A death in the family saw them move to Pennsylvania. Bruce had a “my way or the highway” approach. He insisted on his home being meticulously clean – a showpiece. He was a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, prone to angry tirades and treated Helen shamefully. Still, Alison had an enduring respect for him and his intellect. She wanted to please him and they had more in common than she first thought.
The nine-strong cast and six-piece band do a wonderful job bringing this fractured family tale to life. The narrative is driven both by spoken word and song lyrics (I loved the flow between them) … and what magnificent material there is to work with. Based on a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, published in 2006, the book and lyrics are by Lisa Kron, with music by Jeanine Tesori. Fun Home is both desperately sad and, at times, hilarious – the light critically important as a juxtaposition to the shade.
The performances are first rate – all so polished. The elder Alison shadows her younger selves throughout and does so seamlessly. In fact, all three versions of Alison make a huge and favourable impression. Their timing and delivery are impeccable. Murphy is able to readily channel the different sides of Bruce’s character as he walks closer and closer to the edge of a metaphorical cliff.
Emily Havea is dazzling and delightful as Alison’s newfound gay friend. That leads me to reflect on the delicious, mirth-enduring representation of Alison’s first loving encounter with the same sex. A cheeky number by the children creating a promotional ad for the funeral home is among the many highlights of Fun Home. Among several standout solo performances that reach deep into our souls is Paladino finally letting loose in song as mother Helen.
The set design by Alicia Clements (who is also responsible for the costumes) is superb. Upon entering the theatre, we see two tiers of the family home, including Bruce’s prized book collection, accessible via an impressive black metal spiral staircase. During the course of proceedings, the rotating stage also showcases the outside of the home, where a small tree is planted, the morgue and Alison’s dorm room.
Fun Home is a magnificent theatrical production, helmed with distinction by director Dean Bryant. Musical direction is from Matthew Frank and choreography by Andrew Hallsworth. The musical is playing at the Playhouse at Arts Centre Melbourne until 5th March, 2022.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- The Architect (MTC) – theatre review
- A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (ACM) – theatre review
- Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella (Regent Theatre) – theatre review
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.