The Bechdel Test: Navigating Coming Out

The Bechdel Test: Navigating Coming Out

'If thou remember'st not the slightest folly that ever love did make thee run into, thou hast not lov'd' Act II, Scene IV, As You Like It

Fun Home is a long-time favourite of mine. Based on Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel of the same name, it follows Bechdel (Kaisa Hammarlund) through her somewhat difficult journey into adolescence as she comes to terms with her gay identity and her father comes to terms with his own.  Bechdel dredges up not only the process of becoming a lesbian cartoonist, but the events which lead up to her father committing suicide after having various affairs with “boys, by God, some of them underage”. Having been initially exposed to Fun Home as I came to grips with my own lesbianism, albeit (thankfully) with a far more stable childhood, it holds a very special place in my heart. Thrilled though I was that it was making the transfer to London, I was admittedly concerned that it wasn’t going to live up to the Broadway production I had experienced vicariously through the cast recording. And how wrong I was.

First and foremost, Fun Home is absolutely stunningly conceived. Under the deeply intelligent direction of Sam Gold, Portia Krieger and Lucy J. Skillbeck, the London production admirably brings out Fun Home’s trademark blend of subtlety and vibrancy. Though the London production is played in a proscenium theatre (as opposed to in the round like its Broadway counterpart) and so the temptation may be to shoehorn in the technical punch the Broadway production perhaps lacks, every ‘added’ element feels measured and as though it is there wholly for the benefit of the story. David Zinn gives the set design a slightly more theatrical flourish, with the Bechdel family home going from minimalist to manically grandiose to jarringly stark as Bruce Bechdel (Alison’s father, played by Zubin Varla) becomes increasingly unbalanced before ultimately ending his own life. The London production makes excellent use of a revolve, which in many ways does the legwork otherwise taken up by the Broadway auditorium setup – winding us through Bechdel’s narrative that shifts and warps under its own weight. It is evident that time, energy and care have gone into making Fun Home work in a space with such different theatrical architecture.

With a lot to live up to, the relatively small cast still manage to fill the space; they work with staggering precision as all the different fragments of Alison Bechdel’s memories are manoeuvred by and around them. It is a real testament to the quality of the performers that, in a narrative that is on paper geared around Alison, the audience are able to totally invest in every other character’s internal struggles too. These range from Bruce Bechdel’s spirals of manic aggression and the knock-on effect this has on his headstrong yet increasingly jaded wife, Helen (Jenna Russell), to the moral dilemmas of Roy (Ashley Samuels) - the Bechdel’s babysitter and handyman who Bruce seduces. Mentions, however, must go to Eleanor Kane’s gorgeously awkward Medium Alison. She bumbles through the all-too-familiar trials and tribulations of being a young LGBT+ adult – discovering her sexuality, coming out to her parents and not feeling like what she dubs a “real lesbian”. Praise must also be given to Cherelle Skeete’s wonderfully warm, witty and steady Joan. Together, Kane and Skeete provide both comic relief and moments of pathos -often simultaneously; Kane, with immense physical precision and an incredible voice, absolutely shines in her character’s solo song “Changing My Major”.

All this is aided, of course, by Fun Home in and of itself being an incredibly novel and exciting piece of musical theatre. Fun Home is about as far from ‘classical’ musical theatre as you can get - cheesy, upbeat musical numbers are only ever there for juxtaposition – but perhaps the same could be said of its subject matter. Instead of following a chronological thread through Alison’s life, we watch ‘Big’ Alison watch her memories unfold as she draws out an autobiographical comic, with all the refrains and resonances of retained and forgotten memories playing out before us. Throughout, Alison comments on and occasionally inhabits her memories, whether for the sake of comedy (“oh God, embarrassing” she says, cowering behind a pillow as she recollects losing her virginity) or poignancy (replacing Middle Alison in her final memory of her dad, in which he refuses to acknowledge her lesbianism). “But, god, this thing is ghastly”, she says, talking about her father’s silverware that she held on to. However this, perhaps, resonates more with the tumultuous knot of incidents that lead up to her father’s suicide.

Fun Home is a boldly different take on a long-established genre pulled off expertly. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to find fault with Fun Home, both as a London transfer and a musical in its own right. Shifting and fluxing between past(s) and present, questioning memory and inheritance, and with a catchy yet oddly haunting score to boot, Fun Home is heartachingly good. I would urge you to beg, borrow or steal a ticket to what is undeniably a work of absolute theatrical genius and, for the love of all that is good in the world, I pray that it makes a West End transfer.

 

*****

Five stars

Clodagh Chapman