Sashane Perera has a knack for picking plays that are of importance given the context of where it is being performed.  Earlier on in the year, he directed ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ which dealt with themes of suicide and depression which was important when considering how Sri Lanka has a high suicide rate. Similarly with ‘Fun [...]


Fun Home: Daring theatre, but a little lacking in character maturity


Brilliant performance: Amandhi Caldera, pain in every note. Pix by Sameera Weerasekera

Sashane Perera has a knack for picking plays that are of importance given the context of where it is being performed.  Earlier on in the year, he directed ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ which dealt with themes of suicide and depression which was important when considering how Sri Lanka has a high suicide rate. Similarly with ‘Fun Home’, though discrimination against someone based on their sexual orientation is illegal, homosexuality is still a criminal act in Sri Lanka which can get you up to 10 years in prison. So choosing to direct a musical which focuses on a lesbian protagonist and the discovery of her sexuality is not only apt – it’s rebellious.

A feminist triumph from the get-go, Fun Home originated as an autobiographical comic strip by Alison Bechdel entitled ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’ and was later developed into a musical over the course of five years by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori. When it eventually made it to Broadway it scooped up 5 Tony awards including one for Best Musical. I was surprised to learn that Fun Home was the first mainstream musical to centre on a lesbian; you’d think that the arts industry would have been more progressive and diverse than that. But happily, we now live in an age where the most famous musical in the world is a show about one of America’s founding fathers, featuring a cast that is entirely made up of people of colour and is set to a hip hop/rap score. What a time to be alive!

Going in on opening night (Thursday May 3), I loved how the sets were basically two revolving straight S-shaped structures which used all four sides to their maximum potential. The process of turning it around was slightly noisy but that’s just me nitpicking an otherwise great design. It was also pretty clear from the get go that the play pulled no punches. A sort of non-linear bildungsroman, the musical follows Alison Bechdel (Ayushka Nugaliyadda) as she reflects on her childhood and university days. Small, chirpy

Father and daughter: Vishan Gunawardena as Bruce Bechdel and Celina Randeniya as the young Alison

Alison (Celina Randeniya) grows up in a seemingly perfect family,and enjoys spending time with her brothers (Caelen Gunathilake, Niven Nanayakkara) in their restored Victorian home which they lovingly nickname the ‘Fun Home’ owing it to the fact it’s actually a funeral house. Though enunciation was sometimes a problem when the three children were  talking quickly, it was still a joy to watch them burst into song and be so enthusiastic.

This is quite different to their parents who don’t seem to be too happy. Their mother Helen Bechdel (Amandhi Caldera) is an amateur pianist while their father, Bruce Bechdel (Vishan Gunawardena) is an academic and among other things…a closeted homosexual. As the  older Alison bluntly declares at the start of the show, “He was gay, I was gay. And he killed himself and I became a lesbian cartoonist”.

Post #MeToo it’s shocking to see how uncomfortable some of the scenes involving Bruce can make you feel – offering car rides and alcohol to minors, asking former students to remove their shirts. It’s a stark contrast to the chirpy, simplistic score that underpins much of the show. It’s also a huge alternative to Alison because whilst Bruce’s personal life is imploding; Alison’s is blossoming. Medium Alison (Vinuri Weerawardena) starts off university as a slightly awkward and nervous girl but truly comes into her own when she accepts her sexuality and refuses to be ashamed of it. ‘Changing My Major’ – a funny tribute to her new girlfriend Joan was one of the funniest and sweetest parts of the show.

‘Changing My Major’: Vinuri Weerawardena as the medium Alison

But that’s not to say there isn’t a lot of material here to wrap your head around. Like Joan, you start questioning why Alison’s father sends her a book by Colette – a French writer who was a lesbian. Was it his way of expressing a part of his sexuality and trying to identify with her? Alternatively, he keeps wanting to dress small Alison in stereotypically feminine clothes stating that “You’re a girl…  You understand you’ll be the only one not wearing a dress at the party”. What does this say about him? Is he trying to make her fit in in the same way he has done so for most of his life, albeit without much success? It’s an intricate character that Vishan took on with much gusto but it never quite reached its full potential. Like his and many of the other characters I felt I just skimmed the surface, never really accessing who they were.

In other areas, Johann Peiris led his musicians deftly over the score but it’s a slight shame that the sound mix for that night was slightly off – at one point the piano became louder than the vocals.It wasn’t helped by the fact that the singing wasn’t as strong as it could have been. For the most part, the songs felt slightly constricted and only with a high note would the actors’ voices open up – a lot of fizz but no bang. I think it’s a particular shame as Bruce’s final song before he takes his own life didn’t have as big an impact as it should have – the song ended abruptly and you were left quite confused about what had just happened.

Having said that, the person who delivered a flawless performance was Amandhi Caldera.  Combining a powerful voice and a deep acknowledgment of her character’s pain, every line and note was loaded with such emotion you couldn’t help but get mad on her behalf for the way things had turned out, the pivotal point being her ‘Days and Days’ number. There’s an interesting scene where two scenarios play simultaneously – Bruce seduces his former student in the library whilst Helen plays an etude in the living room, her agitation reflected in the music when it dawns on her what’s happening. I mean, the audacity!

I think particular mention should also go to Ruvin de Silva whose chameleonic nature let him slip into three different roles that only lasted for about two minutes each but made quite an impression nevertheless – you could see each character had a different backstory and that attention to detail is what made him stand out.

In general, the execution of each role was solid but the actors lacked the emotional complexity needed for such a heavy play. I wasn’t blown away by nor was I invested in any of the characters with the exception of Helen. The production had tremendous potential but was perhaps too ambitious. Then again, I also feel that someone’s got to take that leap sooner or later and do something daringly different. Personally, I’m glad it was in the hands of a confident director and his cast.


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