The story of a young butch lesbian, her relationship with her gay, closeted, funeral director father, and his eventual suicide doesn’t sound like the most typical topic for a graphic novel; even less so a vibrant Broadway musical. But Alison Bechdel’s genre-defining 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home (which takes its name from the childhood nickname Bechdel and her siblings gave to their dad’s funeral home) was critically adored, and in 2013, adapted into a funny, playful, and, yes, at times sad piece of musical theatre. It finally makes its UK debut this summer at London’s Young Vic theatre, directed by the show’s original Broadway director, Sam Gold.
The memoir is an astonishing feat of literature: nuanced, dense, self-consciously playing with the tension between image and word. Unavoidably, some of the subtleties of the original text are lost in this dramatization, both thanks to the formal constraints of the stage and the short run time (an hour and 40 minutes without interval). The musical translates the memoir’s non-linear structure and meta-narratives into a series of vignettes. Three versions of Alison take stage, sometimes simultaneously: a young Alison desperate for her father’s approval (Brooke Haynes), a teenage Alison discovering her sexuality at college (Eleanor Kane), and the adult Alison (Kaisa Hammarlund), watching these younger selves play out her memories, trying to draw them and caption the action. The literary allusions that form so much of Bechdel’s memoir are cut.
But there are things gained, too, in this new form. Moments of comedy are bolder and more effervescent, such as when the child Alison and her young brothers cheerfully deliver a bright Motown-style musical advert for the funeral home – including lines like, “This is called an aneurysm hook!” Longing and desire similarly come to life: in the sweet “Ring of Keys”, the unashamedly silly “Changing My Major” (where the college student Alison sings, “I’m changing my major to Sex With Joan, with a minor in Kissing Joan”), and the aching musical motifs of Alison’s dad (Zubin Varla).
Where the graphic novel slowly builds repeated images and references to great literature until a perfect web emerges from desperate threads, giving Alison and her father’s story a sense of cosmic inevitability, the musical suggests that life is messier, more arbitrary. The musical takes a different approach to the memoir: less dense, more exuberant. But it is just as urgent.
This article appears in the 04 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, England in the age of Brexit