Jenna Russell on Fun Home, the musical version of Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir

The actress on why we need to see more lesbian characters on stage and why – when it's done right – the musical can be our most powerful art form

Sarah Bradbury
Monday 25 June 2018 14:07
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Jenna Russell is starring in 'Fun Home' at the Young Vic
Jenna Russell is starring in 'Fun Home' at the Young Vic

When Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic – about the cartoonist’s experience of growing up gay at her family’s funeral home in small-town Pennsylvania – hit the shelves in 2006, it made history by bringing the genre into the mainstream for the first time.

In 2013, it made history again by being adapted for the stage – a rare thing for a graphic novel. After making it to Broadway in 2015 the musical took New York by storm, winning five Tony awards, with Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, the first all-female writing team, to be awarded Best Original Score.

Now the show has arrived on UK shores, at the Young Vic. And, as actress Jenna Russell tells me, Fun Home is once again making history – by having the first lesbian protagonist in a musical on the London stage.

“How depressing is that? It’d never ever happened in New York either and it’s not happened since. Imagine being a lesbian and never seeing yourself represented on stage other than as a sideline or comic character?”

Jenna Russell, Charlie McLellan, Eddie Martin, Brooke Haynes, and Zubin Varla in ‘Fun Home’ at the Young Vic (Marc Brenner)

The success of the book and the musical is refreshing but well overdue, she adds: “It’s a story of a woman coming out and a woman being true to herself, and expressing herself. The way it’s written is so beautiful, but it’s not romanticised. There are no apologies, no dressing it up or dressing it down, no language used that is anything other than honest. And that’s the beauty of it.”

Russell’s role in Fun Home, as Alison Bechdel’s mother, wasn’t landed by chance. A passionate fan of musical theatre – “when it’s done right” – Russell has often been frustrated by its reputation in the UK. But she’s certainly doing her bit to enliven it; the actress has taken on inventive examples of the genre – such as Grey Gardens and Urinetown – as well as winning an Olivier and being nominated for a Tony for her part in Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George.

On hearing of Fun Home’s UK production, she was determined to get a role, even if she was then too old to play grown-up Alison.

“It does that thing that musicals can do and most other art forms cannot do: when the cast is right, when the story is right, with the right director, it can affect you like nothing else – because music is very persuasive. That’s why I was desperate to do it.”

Jenna Russell and Sheila Hancock in the musical ‘Grey Gardens’ at the Southwark Playhouse in 2016 

The adaptation is the work of playwright Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori, whose deft handling Russell credits with ensuring the spirit of the book is upheld. Which is no mean feat considering the complexity of both the illustrative form and the story itself: “In the wrong hands, it could have been a car crash,” says Russell candidly.

“It really could have been saccharine and unintelligent which, let’s be honest, some musicals are, with an eye on the bucks rather than making a piece of art. This is a piece of art.”

Russell was also struck by the power of women’s voices in the piece: Bechdel (whose name is behind the now well-known test for gender equality in film) as well as Kron and Tesori. “It’s very intoxicating to see that realised upon the stage,” she says.

She does, however, point out that the themes explored are universal: “It’s a very quiet but desperately painful domestic situation anyone can identify with, about family, secrets, people being honest and not being honest. How if you suppress your true self, how damaging that can be to you. How being honest about who you are can fracture a family or bring them together. There are moments of absolute joy, and moments of terrible tragedy.” Hence the punning definition “tragicomic”.

And Russell makes a convincing argument for why musical theatre specifically can be so powerful: “There’s nothing like the point where you can’t speak the words anymore and you start to sing. That’s the gift the writers have given us [in Fun Home] – that it is a natural progression.”

This understated, low-key approach to the musical elements is something she admits is difficult to achieve: “In some shows it is very clunky to come out of the spoken word into song. But then you get Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa, Jeanine Tesori – they’re masters of it. You don’t even notice someone’s singing until you’re sitting in your seat crying because a juggernaut’s hit you.”

While musical theatre is clearly her passion, Russell has managed an impressive and unconventionally varied CV; from her time with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the early 90s, through the BBC’s On the Up and singing on the Red Dwarf theme tune, to her latest job – a two-year stint on Albert Square as Michelle Fowler in Eastenders.

Jenna Russell also appeared in ‘Mr Burns’ at the Almeida Theatre in 2014

She took that job every bit as seriously as her stage work: “Every actor in Eastenders has a set that terrifies them – the Vic terrified me,” she explains. “It’s one of those places you can just feel the history. Often they were really long shouty scenes and you had to speak in front of most of the cast.”

But her love for her job is clear, and her conversation is full of gem-like anecdotes and unpretentious name-dropping. There was the time she played Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls opposite Ewan McGregor: “Imelda Staunton says it’s written into the fabric of the show that everyone has the best time. It’s a piece of fluff, there’s no subtext. But it’s a joy to do.”

On working with “brilliant, clever” Robert Icke on Mr Burns, Anne Washburn’s post-apocalyptic play in which the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons is endlessly retold: “It was one of the ‘five star or one star’ shows. People used to shout at us – and I loved it. Isn’t it exciting to be in something where people really feel so affronted they’re screaming?”

The mind-boggling array of jobs is no accident. She consciously spent a lot of her career “balancing things out”, advice she passes onto the next generation currently training in the arts: “The world is so ready to put you in a pigeon hole, especially in this country. Just try and outwit everyone by doing different types of work if you can.”

The actress plays Alison Bechdel's mother in UK production of the musical 

She notes that times have changed since she broke into the scene, however: “Diversity is much better because the young actors are on it. They don’t take s*** like we used to.”

And she thinks recent political upheavals could prove an incredibly fertile for theatre: “It’s exciting creatively. Often it happens that when the world is in turmoil is when our writers do their best stuff. What comes out of their pens in the next few years, God willing we’re still alive, I’m looking forward to.”

Most importantly, at 50, Russell harbours little in the way of regret: “I would do nothing differently, even the s*** bits – even those teach you something.” She feels lucky to have a job she loves and, after 30 years, still be earning a living from it.

If on top of that she can “do stuff that matters on some level” as she believes is certainly the case with Fun Home, she’s satisfied: “I’m really happy to be part of telling the story of a young woman coming to terms with the fact that she’s a lesbian and finding her true self – for those young women out in the audience that are feeling the same thing and have never seen it on the stage.”

‘Fun Home’ is at the Young Vic until 1 September (youngvic.org)

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