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Based on Alison Bechdel’s acclaimed graphic memoir, this chamber musical is a quietly revolutionary work, intimately-scaled, uncommonly tender, sensitively aware of the heartbreaking ways in which family members are able to lock themselves away from those to whom they should be closest, estranged and marooned in their own inner struggles, victims of shame and uncertainty and pride. Simultaneously representing  three time periods on stage (encompassing Alison’s adolescence, university years and her adulthood), revolving around the principle relationship with her father, it’s the frustrated search to comprehend her father’s act of taking his own life (on this matter, the work is equivocal, a great part of its conflict-and vexation-for the lead character). A rigourous, foreboding and unyielding figure prone to outburst and rage, Bruce Bechdel laboured as both funeral director (the “fun home”of the title, as nicknamed by the Bechdel children) and high school English teacher, who led a closeted life as a gay man, freewheeling through several affairs, many of which were ill-advised liaisons with students both former and current (one particular incident, in clammy fashion, led to court-mandated counselling). Having come out herself in college, a declaration met with some great resistance and difficulty from her father, Alison is left to muse on the ways in which her open, brave embrace of her orientation may have aggravated and exacerbated the strife at his core, her strength a rebuke to his cowardice and inability to accept himself.  Staging throughout is minimalist, except for one reveal that knocks the senses sideways, as what has only been mentioned is magnificently, suddenly unfurled. The songs are the antithesis of the usual brass and pomp of slick Broadway musicals, instead quiet (and sometimes excitable), gripping extensions of intense inner emotional lives. Two pieces in particular (“Changing My Major to Joan” sung with all the ardour and enthusiasm of a young lover in the wake of a first sexual experience as college Alison gazes besottedly upon the sleeping form of her partner; and “Days and Days” painfully, mournfully delivered by Alison’s mother late in the play, revealing the sacrifices made to keep her marriage intact long after its demise) can stand next to any classic in the canon.

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The power of the piece, as in any great work, is that the understanding of the dynamics moves quite beyond the specifics into the mythic-even if this is not quite every viewer’s story, it’s a very simple adjustment of detail that need be made to relate it to direct experience. The play steadily accrues a piercing momentum of melancholy and sadness, at its conclusion nearly overwhelming. Some answers are never forthcoming, no matter how hard and how often you ask and spin-the mysteries of motivation will remain out of reach and unknowable. But you will be able to eventually subject them to the assuagements and spiritual appeasements of art, at which Bechdel (and collaborators Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori) excel with wounding insight and sentiment. Fun Home closes 1 September-watch for a possible, much-deserved West End transfer, although I’m not certain the scale of a proscenium stage is the proper venue for such a personal work.


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Pschosexualdelia: Helen Beard/Boo Saville @ Newport St Gallery-What is going on inside Helen Beard’s mind? Much wet, fevered erotic expulsions, if the overwhelmingly sensuous, large-scale works that adorn (and sweat) the walls of Damian Hirst’s South London gallery are evidence. What at first seem like supple investigations of interlocking shapes quickly resolve themselves into weaves of quite startling sexual imagery, boldly colourful interventions and abutments given bodily movement and pressure, a soft welter of pleasurable crushing and crashing, like psychedelic, acid-tinged negative shots. Your optic mental health needs Boo Saville’s chilled colour fields as a visual digestif immediately following, an immersion into calm, gentle pulse and breath, welcoming with a tender embrace and envelop, subtle gradations of shade and layer providing fascinating depth and dimension. A bemused viewer is curious to walk through the murk to the mystery obscured at the heart of each work, or just surrender to the amiable oblivion. True Colours closes 9 September 


Optic Origami: Tomma Abts @Serpentine Sackler Wing-Although the recipient of the 2006 Turner Prize, and a London resident, this is the first comprehensive London exhibition devoted to the work of Abts. Working under self-imposed restrictions (the unvaried canvas size is set to the dimensions 48cm x 38cm, a device she playfully subverts in certain instances; her focus remains rigidly fixed to abstract geometrical patterns, intuitively devised), she is nevertheless able to find remarkable variety in her kaleidoscopically fecund output. The works buzz with a visual elan, lines bending, looping, folding, charging around the canvas, occasionally, with the clever use of shadowed space, even leaping off the frame with 3-D clarity. She is able to achieve a beguiling depth while maintaining a simplicity of design elements-the works are tidy, with no unnecessary embellishment. Abts vigourously directs the spectator’s eye through every energetic surge or detour or abrupt conclusion. Some may find the pieces chilly and methodically mechanical, but there is prodigious, forthright imagination and a certain warmth in colour scheme fully on display-the senses are acutely engaged. The works appear to be informed by some vivacity that emanates from the centre of the frame, sending a spirit outward. Tomma Abts continues through 9 September at Serpentine Sackler Gallery 


In Perpetuity: Rebecca Louise Law @ B0-Lee Gallery-Proving that not even ephemeral art need apply to the ruthless rules of nature, artist/alchemist Law (daughter of a National Trust gardener, and designer known for her monumental floral installations commissioned for public spaces) has found a way to, with a respect for natural process, transmute her material from one elemental state to another, elongating-and extending-its existence as creatively legitimate and substantial matter for exhibition. For the last 15 years, Law has painstakingly gathered the withered, sere remains of her pieces (a global effort, encompassing America, Europe and Asia) and has now archived them in frames both large and small, cabinets of fragmented curiosities. A series of traditionally framed works line the peripheries of the gallery’s front wallspace, but the rear of the gallery is a knockout warren of individually showcased gems, contents able to be studied from both sides-layerings of faded colours, grit, the titular dust, plant life, elements of decomposition and decline, tales told. Each, as the work that inspired it (indeed, fed it), has an unmistakable earthy personality. In the middle of the floor is situated one unbounded mass of matter, as if it has soundly rejected the strictures of sequencing , proudly and vulnerably open to the air. The show put me in mind of the majestic 2010 film Le Quattro Volte, which followed the process of nature from the human through to the mineral basis of existence, the carbon foundation of life. Dust closes on 1 September






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Nestled within the verdant confines of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens is this cosy palace devoted to the appreciation of that most venerated of British drinks, tea (ignore at your peril the notice-warning?-on the front door that coffee is not served on the premises, and know the inadvertent request for such a refreshment will most likely lead to a few fraught arched eyebrows). Operating as a tea house since 2011, the building dates from 1886, originally a Victorian public house-the Pleasure Gardens themselves are thought to be the inspiration for the eponymous “Vanity House” of Thackeray’s classic novel. The list of loose leaf teas is extensive, all choices served in proper pots (strainers provided), swaddled in cosies, served in stylish, if distressed, china cups-someone on staff has clearly been active at several estate sales. The surface of a back table is littered with tiers of drinking vessels, and a nearby chair piled high with a multitude of cosies, from which the servers gently plunder for each order. Classic FM provides the soundtrack, a sedate, tranquil backdrop to conversation. A comprehensive menu is served, from breakfast through to supper, although it is seductively simple to race straight to a sweet, treats dotted across the space, trays atop tables offering delicacies from cheesecakes to brownies to pies to breads. Decor is charmingly ramshackle and cluttered, suggesting the overstuffed parlours of your favourite eccentric auntie. A lively evening calendar assures a visitor of an interesting night’s entertainment-activities include staged readings, debates, drink ‘n draws, poetry slams, a variety of music acts. Whether seeking a low-key, civilised oasis of afternoon calm and peace or a spirited eventide of culture, this very agreeable space provides in spades.


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Credit What’s on Stage


As soon as the central characters, abstractly identified only as the Writer and the Academic, begin their conversational interaction, it’s clear that we are firmly in the New York intellectual vernacular of a Tony Kushner (Angels in America) or Larry Kramer (The Normal Heart). Dialogue is hyper-articulate and obsessively, sensationally self-absorbed and theoretical-the couple speak at, through and over each other in a heat of verbiage.  Credit actors Tyrone Huntley and Harry McIntyre for locating the human beings inside the loquacious and fulsome spillage of words, often suggesting the torrent of combative words as protective shields from having to stand naked and vulnerable in front of one another, deflecting the candid glare of simple honesty.

Credit The Art’s Desk

Something truthful in the relationship, perhaps what is revealed in bodily behaviour and glance, speaks more directly than the dazzlingly distracting and disorienting wordplay. By the closing moments of this one hour and forty-five minute production (without interval) detailing five fraught years in the relationship between these two men, from initial meeting to flowering connection to deep intimacy to eventual break-up, and finally tender reconciliation, there exists a real potent poignancy in the encounters (and McIntyre delivers a real emotional belter on the sales floor of a Lush shop, the ample bath bombs of which occupy three wooden units on stage, contributing a cloyingly heady scent to the room).

Credit What’s on Stage

The characters enact a fragmented, constantly time-shifting structural exploration of the relationship, key moments circulating, deepening as more information and history is accrued and revealed, as affairs both public and personal rage around them (many of which are catalyst for major arguments-race, politics, gentrification, media studies, art, gay rights, drugs, sexual experimentation). The device of “rewinding” backwards and forwards, the actors shifting like tape loops, is not always the sharpest transitional choice. The audience is sat in the round, in very close proximity to the performers (occasionally, one of the characters may suddenly occupy space right next to you), for a proper intimate connection to this particularly insular pairing.

Credit Finborough Theatre

Action takes place on a stretch of sand, a charged metaphor for the uneven and slippery surface upon which the relationship is found, the warp and weave of personal anxiety and paranoia continually destabilising the concrete, the solid. Apparently, and with brazen-at times unwieldy-ambition, playwright Jordan Seavey seems to want to declare his work as a bold, big statement of the American character, encompassing the pressures and stresses upon love and life-cultural, social, political-of the last few decades, a responsibility that at times is unfair to ask of this brief and small-scaled piece.

Credit Evening Standard

But he must be admired for the effort, and for the amount of time he draws close to his intentions, robust and arresting ideas spinning out continuously line after line. Yet crucially, the performers tame the dialogue, preventing it from freezing over into the purely analytical. Homos, or Everyone in America continues through 1 September