After conquering Broadway and the West End, the Tony Award-winning musical based on the memoir of American lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel has finally arrived on a Sydney stage – care of STC in a co-production with MTC. And it is every bit the spectacular, life-affirming and tragic masterpiece that critics in New York and London have raved about.
You might recognise Bechdel’s name from her eponymous test. The Bechdel test is a rough and ready shorthand way of checking a work of fiction’s feminist cred. It asks if it includes at least two female characters, if these characters have names, and if they have a conversation with each other about anything other than a man. If you’re a proud graphic novel geek, on the other hand, you’ll know her for Fun Home's original iteration. It’s a tragicomic look at her coming of age and coming out as a young queer woman in rural Pennsylvania, set in and around the funeral home her father inherited – the ‘Fun Home’, as she and her brothers call it. Charting her emerging sexuality, it also grapples with the fraught relationship she shared with her father.
The stage adaption of Bechdel’s graphic memoir – by Jeanine Tesori, with book and lyrics by Lisa Kron – throws out the rulebook for musical theatre. We follow grown-up 43-year-old Alison Bechdel (Lucy Maunder) on a meta-theatrical journey into her past and the process of creating her biography. On the way, she encounters her child self, ‘Small Alison’ (Karelina Clarke), and her college-aged self, ‘Medium Alison’ (Maggie McKenna). The story here is not necessarily linear, but a series of loosely strung together vignettes, as the grown-up Alison sifts through her memories and reaches for rhyme and reason. Her main goal is to make sense of her father and his abrupt death. We learn that Alison’s coming out reveals a family secret, that her father himself was also queer, and that four months later, he tragically commits suicide – this isn’t a spoiler; we find out early on.
What stands this musical apart from the mainstream canon is that it centres a flannel shirt-wearing, butch-presenting lesbian lead without the need for theatrical hyperbole; just the unvarnished truth of a queer woman. This is one for the smart, introverted Hannah Gadsby-leaning queer folks. Although that’s not to say that Fun Home shrugs off all possibility of musical theatre whimsy. There are wholesome childhood moments (‘Come to the Fun Home’ with Small Alison and her brothers is especially adorable) which offers a fulcrum for the dark family secret. Elements of light and shade are carefully strung together amongst the oscillating scale of unbridled joy and angst brought on by Alison’s queer sexual awakening. Each thread sits comfortably alongside the others.
Musical and cabaret performer Lucy Maunder leads the storytelling as Adult Alison, and she is onstage virtually the entire time. Her commanding presence keeps the audience drawn to her with reactive facial expressions and considered physicality. She holds herself with the posture of someone who has been hunched over a desk for decades. Maggie McKenna (who originated the lead role in Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical) shines as Medium Alison, portraying the frustrations but also the immense joy of queer and sexual awakenings. The child actors are also well picked, with the role shared between three performers. Karelina Clarke nailed the role of Small Alison on the night we attended. Adam Murphy is perfectly cast as Bechdel’s father, his physicality seemingly ripped straight from the pages of the original graphic novel.
Under the adept eye of multi-award-winning director Dean Bryant, easily the most accomplished person working in Australian musical theatre since Simon Phillips, Adult Alison pursues the action through pivotal places like her childhood home and her college dorm. The stage design for this production, by Alicia Clements with Isabel Hudson, is stunning. A large, rotating set allows an ease of flow between Alison’s past and present. The lighting design by Matt Scott heightens and ebbs at the feelings that arise in these spaces. The blinding flash, symbolic of the truck that takes her father’s life, is a startling and impactful moment.
While the show may avoid many musical theatre tropes, it still delivers numbers worthy of cult status, with ‘Rings of Keys’ and ‘Changing My Major’ amongst the standouts. The former has gained a reputation in queer circles for its sweet depiction of a lesbian awakening, when, by a chance encounter, Small Alison sees a butch lesbian woman for the first time and is in awe. It prompts her to imagine a possible future for herself outside of frilly dresses and heteronormative expectations. In the latter, Medium Alison brims with joy after her first, affirming sexual experience – and if confidently declaring that you’re dedicating your life and studies to a woman you just slept with isn’t true sapphic representation, we’ll turn in our Doc Martens and astrology app subscriptions.
Elsewhere, lyrical cues gracefully tie together story threads. In the second half, Alison’s mother’s song ‘Shortly After We Were Married’ (performed by inimitable soprano Marina Prior) provides much needed context to her character and the parents' complicated relationship.
The script isn’t perfect; some scenes are better fleshed out in the source material than on stage. The pacing can become confused, as the shattered strands are swept together, which admittedly points to the nature of memory. But with a tight runtime of an hour and 40 minutes, the show doesn’t linger past its welcome.
The biggest drawcard of Fun Home is its authentic representation. Speaking as a queer woman, who loves and has loved other people who identify as or have been perceived as women, it is incredibly touching to see the moments of queer angst, elation and discovery on a mainstage, as the Adult Alison looks on at her younger selves with tenderness and embarassment. My introduction to Bechdel’s work (aside from her famous test) is through this musical. However, for the friend I saw the show with, a queer woman about a decade older than me, the original graphic novel has long been a source of frenetic fandom and affirmation. It’s a stirring thing to see Bechdel’s story finding new audiences, and with powerful local performers heightening its unique beauty (or, rather, handsomeness). This staging is a (ring of) key(s) to something greater.
Fun Home is at Sydney’s Roslyn Packer Theatre until May 29. Get your tickets here.