Musicals to Watch Out For

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home (Music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, directed by Sam Gold. Young Vic)

I confess I know little more about Alison Bechdel than the Bechdel-Wallace Test and its origin in Dykes to Watch Out For. This is a failing, as I have read Maus and have copies of some Joe Saccho and Harvey Pekar, which is almost like having read them.

So Fun Home is a graphic novel memoir, of Bechdel’s childhood, of her early days at college and her realisation that she is a lesbian. It is also a reflection on her relationship with her father — an English teacher, a funeral director, a house restorer and with his own secret identity. And then there is her mother: playwright, pianist, raising a daughter to fly and abandon her, a slave to the secret.

If I am ignorant of graphic novels, then I also have blindspots in the musical. Thirty years ago I saw a touring production of Blood Brothers, with Mark McGann as Peter Capaldi’s twin (promising young actors, I wonder where they are now) and musically it reminded me of that, as well as shift between comedy and tragedy.

At the heart of the piece are the adult Alison, the student Alison and the child Alison. The latter two have more singing, indeed it is a brave choice to give the child lead an opening number. I had a few moments of wondering if her voice was going to be up to it — I needn’t have worried. And that isn’t just making allowances for a child. Then one of her brothers all but steals the show.

I am wary about discussing the set — at first it is basic, with a settee, a side table or two, a piano for the early 1970s, a bed and a doorway for the student digs, a cartooning desk for wherever the present day is meant to be. The proscenium stage is surprisingly shallow, a brick wall painted black being just a few metres back. As the pressures grow, a white flat with a door lowers in and gives little more than a metre’s depth. But there are visual delights that add to this.

Just as with Red and My Name is Laura Barton, it plays without an interval, as if theatres no longer want to sell overpriced ice cream tubs. But then we would sit through one hour forty for a film without a comment, and the pace is varied enough to carry it.

Behind the musical there is a sense of guilt by this depiction of Bechdel — her own identity as a lesbian and cartoonist comes at the expense of exploiting her family and potentially destroying it in the process. (Doesn’t “Art Spiegelman” voice the same anxieties in Maus II? Not to take away from Bechdel’s art.) This act of catharsis is true of a lot of great art, and it does make the family live again in the two hours traffic of the stage. There are some interesting parallels in character ethnicity, which pass implicitly rather than being laboured, and a style of glasses allows a parallel between father and daughter. (The presumably race-blind casting of one of the siblings is more awake, but then I’m still getting to grips with how literally we can take the realist coding of the musical, which has also been seen as a utopian form.)

Meanwhile, of course, I need to look at the source.

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