Review: Fun Home – A Perfect Balance of Joy and Sadness

Cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s story of family ties and self-discovery is uniquely personal, yet ultimately, simply human.

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The Bechdel family. Photo: Crispian Chan

Fun Home portrays the universal search for identity through a spectrum of emotions. With poignant scenes like the iconic one after the main character’s first sexual experience, Pangdemonium’s production of the musical delivers joy and despair in a relatable, heart-wrenching story.

Medium Alison, played by a brilliantly frenetic Elena Wang, has just had sex for the first time with college friend Joan and excitedly launches into the song ‘Changing My Major’, kicking off the show’s best scene. It starts off like a comedy bit made up of college-related puns, many of which drew huge laughs from the audience; one personal favourite is “I’m writing a thesis on Joan.”

But in the midst of her joy, Medium Alison reveals a profound fear of her new-found sexuality, delivering an emotional atom bomb with the line: “Am I falling into nothingness, or flying into something so sublime?” The scene ends on a bittersweet note, having showcased a perfect mix of happiness and sadness in her ecstasy and uncertainty.

The musical tells the non-linear story of Alison Bechdel, a real-life cartoonist, who literally (no, really) walks through her own memories of being the adolescent Small Alison and the college-aged Medium Alison. As an adult, she explores her complicated relationship with her closeted father against the backdrop of her own realisation that she is a lesbian.

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Small Alison (Elly Gaskell) and her father Bruce (Adrian Pang) discuss her sketch as Alison (Nikki Muller) looks on. Photo: Crispian Chan

Hindsight reveals to Alison aspects of her memories she would not have understood then, as exemplified by the ‘Ring of Keys’ scene. Small Alison, played by Elly Gaskell in this showing, sees a butch delivery woman walk into a diner, and is immediately drawn to how different she is. The scene starts sweetly enough, as Small Alison’s confusion leads to constant mid-sentence hesitations. Her perfectly natural portrayal even started modulating the breathing patterns of several audience members in unison with hers.

In most shows, such an expression of discovery and joy would already be a high point. What makes the ‘Ring of Keys’ scene transcendent is the sweet, shy, simple delivery of the question: “Do you hear my heart saying ‘Hi’?” Her happiness in discovering these new feelings is made devastating by how far she is from understanding them. These opposing emotions combine in an unforgettable mixture of elation and heartbreak.

However, this does not mean that every Fun Home scene contains this mix. Not only would that make for a boring show, but it is also unnecessary, for not every scene requires the full scope of humanity. For example, Adrian Pang exercises a controlled precision in his portrayal of Bruce Bechdel. Pang’s Bruce is many things — a strict father, a distant husband, a man frustrated with his sexuality — but he is never played for comedy.

Nor should he be. Take, for example, the short scene where Small Alison refuses to wear a dress to a party, and insists on changing into her “boy shirts and pants”. Without pausing, Bruce tells her that she will be the only girl not wearing a dress, using peer pressure to force Small Alison to conform. In another scene, Bruce seduces the underaged Roy, played by Benjamin Kheng, whose pop vocals are put to excellent use later on, but who is memorable here for sporting a pair of uncomfortably short shorts. In both cases, Bruce’s actions are meant to heighten our sympathy for his family, and using him for comedy could undermine that.

The Fun Home is as much a sombre place as it is a fun-filled childhood abode for Small Alison and her brothers. Photo: Crispian Chan

The undisguised emotions of many scenes make perfect sense because the whole show is depicted from Alison’s viewpoint through her memories. In that way, she is the only character who matters. From the fear she felt during Bruce’s unpredictable outbursts to the joy of dancing around the family’s funeral home (yes, fun home) with her brothers, they all fit together like pieces in the puzzle of who she is now.

Which is why no production of Fun Home can survive without a strong Alison, and Pangdemonium has the inimitable Nikki Muller. Because of the framing device of Alison’s need to remember details so she can draw them, she is in almost every scene of the show. Even when she is partially hidden in shadows, if one’s eye happens to wander over to Alison, she is always responding accordingly to the scene.

In the finale, Alison is at her wit’s end, running out of details to draw as the scenes slip out of sight and memory. When she remembers one last perfect moment between her and Bruce, it feels like the culmination of everything we’ve just seen, an embodiment of every bit of delight and pain in Alison’s life.

The word ‘bittersweet’ somehow seems inadequate to describe the truly unique emotion that lingers long after the show. Fun Home seems to propose the idea that pure humanity lies between happiness and sadness. It succeeds.

Fun Home is showing at the Drama Centre Theatre in the National Library until Oct 15. Tickets are available from Sistic.