The week in theatre: Fun Home; One for Sorrow; Undaunted; Windrush: 492 – review

Young Vic; Royal Court; Greenwich and Docklands international festival, London
Acclaimed cartoonist Alison Bechdel comes to life in a remarkable new musical, a stranger menaces liberal London, and a high-wire suffragette thrills

“He killed himself. I became a lesbian cartoonist.” And now this father and daughter story, first told by Alison Bechdel in her 2006 graphic memoir, has been made into a show with songs. Anguished, gleeful, candid and peculiar, Fun Home pushes musical theatre in new directions, and startles at pretty much every turn. It sings more about sex than about falling in love. The sex is mostly between women – though there are also the encounters that Dad turns out to have had with young men throughout his marriage. Oh and the “fun” in the title is short for “funeral”.

Sam Gold’s production, a big hit off and on Broadway, is a remarkable act of recreation by Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music). The emotional and physical jumble of what Bechdel calls “a family tragicomic” is all there. Dad was a literature teacher and a compulsive restorer of his house: “See how we polish and we shine,” chirrup his three children. He was also a funeral director: in a knockout moment the kids prance around a coffin Jackson 5 style. Zubin Varla is powerfully dismaying as this basilisk father: a tormented bully who throws out bolts of charm and who increasingly seems to suck the light from around him. As his wife, Jenna Russell, wiped out by sadness, hauntingly traces her own disappearance in the desolate Days and Days.

There are plenty of dying falls, woodwind sighs, half-lines that fade away. Yet there is also hard-won hope and gusto. The Bechdel narrator appears in three guises, all excellent: Kaisa Hammarlund as the adult self who looks back, seeing how intermeshed her life and personality was with her father’s; Eleanor Kane coltish as her student self, wondering if she can belong among “the real lesbians”; and Brooke Haynes, zippy as the little girl Alison. Each of them delivers an instant showstopper. A recognition moment when Haynes sees her first “old-style butch” and, choppy with excitement, catalogues the glamour of “dungarees… lace-up boots and – oh, your ring of keys”. A lilting, swooning waltz when Kane has been to bed for the first time with a fellow student: “I’m changing my major to sex with Joan.” And from Hammarlund the urgent thrum of Telephone Wire.

The range of these numbers is extraordinary – this is an idiosyncratic but not a niche show. And something else remarkable happens. The music is spare and direct, the voices unadorned, the lyrics precise. Together they suggest an aural equivalent of Bechdel’s graphic line. What a wonderful last show for David Lan, who leaves the Young Vic in tremendous shape.

Kitty Archer, Sarah Woodward and Pearl Chanda in One For Sorrow.
Kitty Archer, Sarah Woodward and Pearl Chanda in One For Sorrow. Photograph: Johan Persson

Another clever title throws shadows over One for Sorrow. The solitary magpie of the nursery rhyme is a woeful omen – but that doesn’t make it culpable. Any more than the lone visitor in Cordelia Lynn’s new play is to be assumed guilty. Still, since he has a brown face, wears a padded coat that he won’t take off, and carries a knapsack, it’s a safe bet that the all-white, liberal family who offer him shelter will eventually turn on him.

The stranger as dramatic trigger is familiar enough. But Lynn has something more interesting in mind. Her play looks at a family jangled by swirling, shape-changing ways of being frightened. She is in tune with the historian Margaret Macmillan, who in this year’s Reith Lectures is asking if war is not an aberration but a natural way of life.

The evening begins in darkness, with a crash, the sound of gunfire and a whispered voice – of someone panicking and on the run. An unexplained battle is raging in the streets of London. Hostages have been taken. The death toll is mounting. In a calm grey sitting room there is a versatile demonstration of what it is to be scared. One young woman shrinks from friendships: Pearl Chanda conveys her watchfulness with quickly flicking eyes in an impassive face. Her sister is fixated by horrors: her art project at school features footage of executions. Kitty Archer, making her stage debut, gives her a lurid friskiness. Sarah Woodward’s apparently all-rational mother looks back on her bird phobia. As the father, Neil Dudgeon, quivering with anxiety, is caught between pathos and ridicule as he blunders around proclaiming he will “protect” his family. The women roll amused and exasperated eyes.

James Macdonald’s production is clenched and reflective. It’s an evening of fascination but not of propulsion. Lynn revolves her preoccupations slowly, over-emphatically. Much of the work has already been done by Laura Hopkins’s expressive design. The bourgeois house is gradually invaded by long streaks of damp. The world outside is weeping and its tears are pressing through the walls.

High-wire walker Phoebe Bullzini in Undaunted
High-wire walker Phoebe Bullzini in Undaunted: ‘a wonderful picture of suffragette defiance’. Photograph: Stu Mayhew

At the Greenwich and Docklands international festival, images contained dramas. The UK’s only female high-wire walker supplied a wonderful picture of suffragette defiance in Undaunted: composed against the odds, moving purposefully above her audience. Phoebe Bullzini wore suffrage garb: a purple jacket and a long green skirt with a fringe of petticoat. Her progress was deliberate. She didn’t do false wobbles but occasionally tapped her foot on the wire as if with impatience – and halfway across tore up pages (women’s history?), which fluttered down into the crowd. Reaching the end of her walk, she waved above her head a Votes for Women sash.

Everything in this festival gains from co-opting surroundings as scenery. From Tuesday to Saturday, Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing will be staged around the south Thamesmead locations in which the play is set. Meanwhile, yards away from Queen’s House, in front of which Bullzini walked, the beautiful Cutty Sark is caught for ever between two epochs: behind her is stately Greenwich village; across the river, the new bustle of Docklands.

In Windrush: 492, the clipper became a celebration of another moment of change. The playwright Roy Williams, whose parents came from Jamaica to England in the 1950s, had made a sound installation: recordings, which played from loudspeakers on board, of some of the men and women who arrived in Tilbury from the Caribbean 70 years ago. None of them young now, of course: the voices were mellow and the pace of delivery steady, though what they described was often bitter. The more so given the recent scandal of mistreatment. One woman remembers the landlady who turned off the lights in her room at six o’clock each night: she had to look after her newborn baby by the light of a streetlamp. Another remembers “scrawny neck”, the teacher who resented her pupil’s superior schooling in Jamaica: “You uppity nigger, you have no business knowing all of that.” When she looked at her exam papers, she saw that marks had been deducted. For being herself.

Meanwhile, the names of 492 Windrush passengers were painted in photoluminescent paint on the ground around the Cutty Sark: at night, they shone out, in slightly bending lines as if they were floating on waves.

Windrush: 492 at the Cutty Sark, Greenwich.
Windrush: 492 at the Cutty Sark, Greenwich. Photograph: Doug Southall

Star ratings (out of five)
Fun Home ★★★★★
One for Sorrow ★★★
Greenwich and Docklands international festival ★★★★

Fun Home is at the Young Vic until 1 Sept


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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