At its core, Fun Home is a story about family. But family is rarely simple; it’s messy, complicated and challenging. Families force stories, skeletons, and occasionally sexualites, into hiding in the back of closets.
But cartoonist Alison Bechdel chose to hang her trauma out for the world to see – in the shape of a graphic memoir, musical and a movie to come.
‘My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town, and he was gay, and I was gay, and he killed himself. And I became a lesbian cartoonist.’ This is the last line of one of the opening numbers in Fun Home. Searing honesty, morbid frankness and a curiosity that demands truth mould Bechdel’s story into the heartaching and life-affirming musical it is. And for the ﬁrst time ever, Melbourne audiences are now able to relish in this production directed by Dean Bryant.
Based on Bechdel’s 2006 graphic novel, Fun Home’s 100-minute musical adaptation travels through time, and audiences meet Alison at three different ages. Relationships and identity are rarely linear – neither is memory; we witness Alison wading through her own archive trying to come up with witty and all-encompassing captions for her autobiographical comic strips.
The kaleidoscope of generations is underpinned by similarities, rather than differences; apart from Alison’s love of Converse sneakers and denim (and affinity for short hair), no matter the age, there’s this constant yearning – for answers, for herself and from her father.
Sitting in the Playhouse, audiences might ﬁnd themselves asking themselves similar questions too. As a queer woman, Fun Home struck a whole orchestra of nerves. At times, the parallels to my own experience were unsettling. When your story isn’t what’s set in the mainstream, seeing it centrestage can feel like you are the one on stage.
‘Fun Home isn't just a gay musical … It’s a real queer story, and it's the life of this amazing woman. It's not glorifying her and who she is, but it's looking at her flaws, it's looking at her as a real person,’ says Ursula Searle, who plays Medium Alison. ‘Everything about her … reminds me a lot of myself … It’s so nice to feel so close to a character.’
Seeing rarely-told stories of LGBTQIA+ women feels revolutionary. Knowing that LGBTQIA+ women are behind it is even better. Seeing yourself reflected in media is something that, time and time again, people point to as an important pillar of representation. But what that means is that we have to contend with the stories that aren’t comforting and might not end in ‘happily ever afters’.
Bechdel pays homage to the spectrum of queer experiences by intimately sharing her own life. By doing so, Fun Home allows other queer women to take control of their own story, allowing them to carve out their own space.
What was birthed from Bechdel’s complicated upbringing has evolved into a cult queer piece of theatre; one that Melbourne has been holding its breath for. In the years since the graphic novel and musical’s release, it’s been a salve of understanding for many who have walked in, or alongside, shoes that resemble Bechdel’s.
Besides, it was only five years ago that this country ached under the weight of the national same-sex marriage plebiscite. It was only days ago that we marched for the rights of our trans teenagers. It’s a story that’s needed now, more than ever.
‘It’s human, it’s complex, it’s a wonderful piece,’ says Adam Murphy, who plays Bruce Bechdel. Fun Home is a story that everyone can find themselves in. Because embedded in Bechdel’s particular life experience is rawness, vulnerability, and that never-ending search for life’s answers. It may be a story of one woman’s life, but this one story lets us know that all of ours are valid and are worthy of the stage.
Maggie Zhou is a writer and producer at Reﬁnery29 Australia, and a freelance lifestyle and culture writer with a focus on sustainability and race. Her work has been published in ELLE, Marie Claire, MTV Australia, Broadsheet, Fashion Journal and others.
Fun Home is on stage at Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse.
Published on 18 February 2022