MiNDFOOD Reviews: ‘Fun Home’ by Sydney Theatre Company

By Gill Canning

Photography by Prudence Upton.
Photography by Prudence Upton.

Fun Home may be unique in that it was adapted from a comic strip and based on a true story. In this case, the musical is the life story of the American comic strip artist, Alison Bechdel.

Bechdel, who is best known for another long-running cartoon series, Dykes to Watch Out For, wrote Fun Home about her slightly unusual upbringing in small-town Pennsylvania, USA with her two brothers, her closeted gay dad and her long-suffering mum.

As well as being a high-school English teacher, her father, Bruce also ran the local funeral home (truncated to ‘Fun Home’ by his three kids) and, in his spare time, picked up young guys for sex while his actress wife, Helen tried to keep her career in community theatre alive and hold the family together. 

When Alison goes off to college and belatedly realises her own queerness after falling for her friend, Joan, her father takes his own life by stepping in front of a truck.

Photography by Prudence Upton.

There is obviously plenty of material there for a moving story and when it was produced on Broadway, Fun Home took New York by storm, winning Best Musical at the 2015 Tony Awards.  

The Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Fun Home features rising musical star Maggie McKenna (daughter of Kath & Kim’s Gina Riley) as teenage Alison, and stage legend Marina Prior as Alison’s mum, Helen.

They, along with the rest of the cast, do a stellar job portraying the Bechdel family as they embody small-town life in 1970s America, including the foibles of their difficult father and frustrations of their mother. ‘Alison’ is portrayed by three actresses – one who plays her as a child, one as a teen and one as an adult. Adult Alison (Lucy Maunder) narrates the play, staying on stage throughout, and the device works well as the story is told through vignettes (memorable moments from her life). Despite the play’s obvious tragedies, both small and large, there are plenty of laughs and the Opening Night audience gave the show a standing ovation.

Photography by Prudence Upton.

The music and lyrics are terrific and often evocative, with some particularly catchy tunes that will resonate long after the curtain falls. However the musical – at only one hour and 40 minutes – feels slightly short to properly convey the motivations and vicissitudes of its main characters – Alison and her parents.

Helen, in particular, feels under-developed. Her haunting solo, Days and Days about the disappointments of her life (“Everything is balanced and serene / Like chaos never happens if it’s never seen”) is a high point. But we are provided unsatisfyingly insufficient insight into her emotions and relationships with her husband or her children. Bruce, similarly, is rather closed and – due to his habit of ignoring his children in favour of decorating his house and on occasion, sleeping with underage teenage boys – does not garner much sympathy as a character. Even the likeable Alison, with whom we engage the most, would benefit from more character development. 

Fun Home is a moving story and enjoys well-deserved kudos as the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist. It deals with the themes of flawed memory, how our history shapes who we become, and being true to ourselves, but at times it asks more questions than it answers and I was left wanting more in order to more meaningfully connect with its characters. 

Fun Home
Sydney Theatre Company
27 April-29 May, 2021


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