Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is a graphic memoir first published in 2006. It traces her life prior to and surrounding her father’s death; featuring her troubled childhood, realising that she’s a lesbian and coming out, and learning that her father was gay and had affairs with – sometimes underage – men.
Having encountered the book on the Queer Literature module in my third year at UEA I was curious to see how a graphic memoir would come across on stage: would someone in the audience who hadn’t read the book get this from the performance alone? Virtually as soon as the play started, it was made apparent – there were three different Alison characters, including an adult Alison who literally captioned and drew scenes as they unfolded on stage. It was a really cool aspect of the performance which saw adult Alison serving as a bridge between us the audience and them the performers. We were simultaneously viewing a scene and watching adult Alison, who often stood at a small distance from the action, remember, react to and chronicle it. It kept us active, just like the book keeps the reader as they constantly switch between words and images.
Prior to the production, I had either completely forgotten or altogether missed the fact that it was a musical and was briefly confused by the immediate song, turning to my partner whose face simply read: oh, it’s a musical? Whilst I could easily write about each number, my favourites were ‘Changing My Major’ and ‘Ring of Keys’. The former is a hilarious solo by teenage Alison after having sex for the first time with a girl at college, named Joan, in which she proclaims, ‘I’m changing my major to sex with Joan / With a minor in kissing Joan’. Reflecting on the night before, teenage Alison is incredibly goofy, excited and scared, and prances around the bed whilst Joan, unaware, sleeps. The latter is another solo but by child Alison. At a diner with her father she sees a butch woman and grapples with the fact she simultaneously admires and, for a reason unknown to her then, identifies with this woman – ‘I know you / I know you / I know you’ being the final lines. Watching a musical with a lesbian protagonist that featured songs about sexuality, identity and sex was so refreshing. Being a memoir by a lesbian, Fun Home is a source of solid representation – so seeing it adapted into a musical, that did so well in the states, where it was produced and first performed, that it made it over to the UK, was very exciting.
Bechdel’s family home, which is also a funeral home, hence ‘fun’ home, is written about and featured in the drawings throughout the book. Her childhood home is key to understanding her father as it was the physical manifestation of his (hidden) sexuality. Unable to express his true self he took to lavishly restoring and decorating their period home – and other property he bought – to an exceptional standard.
There were beautiful pieces of furniture and early on there was a song titled ‘Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue’ that reveals the demanding nature of Bruce, Alison’s father, and the family’s duties in his pursuit for perfection. Later in the performance, the back wall lifts to reveal more furniture and the surrounding walls are decorated with beautiful wallpaper, extending the scene both deeper and higher than before. It was a real ‘awe’ moment and you could feel the audience collectively gasp in amazement at the stage. It reminded me of scenes in the book where people would visit the Bechdel’s, both amazed and staggered by the house before them. We were those visitors, astounded.
It was a stunning performance and I’m so thankful that I dragged myself to see it. I’d love to tell you to grab tickets, but, unfortunately, it’s sold out. Whilst I was writing this, I tried to book some more only to discover that every date is marked ‘Returns Only’. I’ll certainly be keeping up with the Young Vic’s social media in case they extend the running date past the 1st September – you should too!