Sunday, June 16

The Fabulist Fox Sister – Southwark Playhouse

The Fabulist Fox Sister is a 2020 musical that plays with the idea of lies and fake truth in a historical context. Yet the references to today are there. The Fox sisters were 3 siblings who claimed to converse with spirits, becoming star medium performers during their lifetimes and now being cited as some of the founders of the Spiritualism movement.

Michael Conley is a smiley and natural performer, as is his character Kate Fox who is reminiscing to an audience about her life in 1892. Kate is intentionally un-mystical, raucously funny, and from the start an unreliable narrator.

The narrative is fairly typical of an older character looking back on their life and taking the audience through the events they have experienced chronologically, in Kate’s case she details her and her sister’s lives as prominent American mediums during the 19th century. Kate’s manner and words sometimes contradict themselves, as events and facts are omitted and miss-represented in her version of events. Moreover, parts of her dialogue do not follow what she’s already told the audience, or she trails off showing that she doesn’t want to relay certain details.

We have Kate singing “I told a lie”, expressing remorse that she lied her way through life, yet ironically, she still lies in each verse of the song. But the audience is invited to gobble up the untruths, giving Kate a platform.

The staging has been devised for screen by director Adam Lenson. There is pleasing work with the camera when Kate is filmed from above, reminding the viewer that we are watching a séance – a play-within-a-play.

The titular character of this play-within-a-play breaks out intermittently into song, each about a key moment in her life. Luke Bateman writes the music and Michael Conley writes catchy and amusing lyrics, including a particularly memorable number about “popping toes” and a love song belted out to a bottle. Conley brings storytelling into his musical numbers in a big way, moulding his face and voice to convey how much truth we can take from each line. Kate sings a brutal song to her mother, laying into the very foundations of who she is and what she has built her life around only to dramatically reprise it later in the play, the victim this time, herself.

The lighting by Matt Daw is moody. Bathing the set scene by scene in varying colours and creating shade when Kate wants to produce a bit of mysticism for her audience. The set by Libby Todd is lavish, plush, fussy and exactly what we expect a grand-old-diva to kit her home out in, which helps the audience to immediately know the character of Kate through her living room behind her.

To contrast with the refined room behind her, Kate’s dialogue is peppered with expletives, most of the time achieving a desired comic effect. The comedy of play is directed at the audience, as one would expect with a stage musical, yet it does not feel forced. Kate is more or less stationary, standing and sitting a few times but the energy and character Conley brings to the role manage to drive the play despite this.

The Fabulist Fox sister is an evening of raucous old-fashioned fun, with a nod to the state of the world today but perhaps lacking an emotional undercurrent to reference that Kate and her sisters were women who made something interesting of themselves despite their time, status and limited means.

Reviewer: Matilda Israel

Reviewed: 4th December 2020

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★