Southwark Playhouse’s latest musical to be streamed online, The Fabulist Fox Sister, is loosely based on the true story of Kate Fox, one of the renowned Fox sisters. In the 1800s she and sister Margaret convinced older sibling Leah that they could communicate with the dead, and they soon became famous in the US for their séances, which played a key role in the development of spiritualism.
In The Fabulist Fox Sister the year is 1892 and after 44 years Kate, the self-proclaimed ‘Mother of all Mediums’, is holding her final séance before she retires, having become ‘bored of people and questions’. Only this time the last-surviving Fox sister is choosing her own ghosts to communicate with, and conjures up the spirits of Margaret and Leah to help tell the story of their rise to fame during a time when only male voices are heard, and their subsequent fall into poverty.
With the book and lyrics from Michael Conley, who also stars as Kate, and music from Luke Bateman, The Fabulist Fox Sister is an entertaining history lesson about a fascinating family. The story of the Fox sisters is compelling in itself, particularly given their later admission that their ‘gift’ was simply a trick involving the popping of their toes, but Conley’s script is also laden with brilliantly dry humour, resulting in a monologue you don’t want to end. What’s so clever about the piece is that it’s hard to tell what really happened and what Fox is embellishing for her audience – after all, she’s used to performing for a crowd.
Bateman’s songs, which fit in well with the story, are mostly toe-tapping (pardon the pun) numbers which really get under the skin. The likes of ‘Popping my toes’ and ‘If they believe it’ are incredibly infectious, brought to life with help from Musical Supervisor Tamara Springier and percussionist Becky Brass, who also give a voice (or rather a knock or two) to Leah and Margaret. It’s the more upbeat songs that work best, and Bateman has a talent for interjecting brilliant humour into the show, with some of his lyrics incredibly funny, although not suitable for younger viewers.
Michael Conley is utterly mesmerising as Kate, luring the audience under his spell the moment he first starts to speak. A one-person show is no easy feat and he has viewers hanging on his every word throughout the 90 minute show. While he is obviously performing in drag, he doesn’t make too much of this, allowing Kate’s story to constantly be at the forefront of the show. Conley delivers his lines with razor-sharp coming timing and the perfect dose of sarcasm at times. There’s an underlying sadness to Kate as she reflects on some of the more darker periods of her life, the deaths of loved ones, her battle with alcoholism; but she doesn’t dwell upon these moments for too long, and often they are followed up with a hilarious quip. Some of the things Kate says are downright cruel, but yet they’re delivered in such a cheeky way that you still can’t help but root for her.
Overall the online production works well and Adam Lenson’s direction ensures it maintains its pace throughout. Libby Todd’s set and costume design reflects the period of time, while Matt Daw’s subtle lighting does a a good job of creating an atmospheric piece. While this is a very good show, the odd overhead camera shot feels somewhat jarring, and likewise there are moments of canned laughter which feel out of place. It does feel like this would work best as a stage show with Conley reacting to the people in front of him each night, and when theatres reopen this show is certainly deserved of a live audience.
With a fascinating story at its heart, some catchy tunes and a brilliant performance from Michael Conley, The Fabulist Fox Sister is an engaging and witty production that’s certain to amuse and entertain.
Photo credit: Jane Hobson