The Fabulist Fox Sister – Southwark Playhouse

Written by Luke Bateman and Michael Conley

Directed by Adam Lenson

Rating: 4 out of 5.

For a time, the realms of stardom were reserved for those who could communicate with the departed, and mediums and spiritualists held a prestigious place in the homes of the wealthy and poor alike. Regardless of one’s beliefs on the idea of death and the prospect of an afterlife, the concept of seers is, we can hopefully agree, nonsense. Drawing on the life of one of the history’s most influential, and a woman who may or may not have ‘created’ the industry, there is no doubt that Kate Fox, the most fabulist of the Fox sisters, made spiritualism marketable.

In part vaudeville tribute and in joint creation with Luke Bateman, Michael Conley dons the visage of the late Kate Fox and takes his place on the stage to perform one final séance. And as a treat, the audience will not be the ones prospering from this jaunt into the afterlife. No, this time, for her final performance, Kate Fox will draw on the spirits of her own life, guided by her two medium sisters Maggie and Leah in a semi-biographical comedy which casts a light into the darkness of fraudsters, alcoholism and the misery of grief.

There’s a reason Kate was the most fabulist and successful sister, and she doesn’t need to thank Jim (Beam) and Glen(Fiddich) for that. So, who better than the co-creator of this lavish, singing acid-tongued monstrosity, to play the part of the lead? Leaning into the art of drag, but not so heavily as to divert attention from the story of the Fox sisters, Conley has a sharp grasp of timing and savagery that make the character of Kate enticing, levelling the more distressing history we learn about her.

Casting us into the world of spiritualism and hokum, Libby Todd’s stage and costume design complement the suggested period, while Matt Daw’s minimal lighting both sets the tone as well as conjures the spirits of the deceased Fox sisters Maggie and Leah, who are performed by percussionist and musical supervisor Becky Brass and Tamara Saringer.

Musically, the show hits the right notes, but not necessarily in the correct order. Conley channels a deceptive voice as Kate, not aiming exclusively for pitch, but carries pacing and rhythm impressively, remarkable given the stretches of some numbers. Significantly the musical interludes have a catchy composition, but lyrically they come across as expositional, rather than narrative or emotive. On rare occasions though, the songs tie directly into the atmosphere and validate the choices of vaudeville styling.

The merger of digital streaming and theatre needn’t rely on gimmicks or forced perspective, and the decision to cause minor breaks in immersion as an overhead angle is thrust upon the audience is a bewildering choice. And though a unique perspective, it provides nothing of interest or aid to the narrative or tone and only adversely draws attention away from Conley’s performance.

There’s a lotta dough to be made from the dead, and people only want one thing; closure. Or in Kate’s life – some peace and a drink. The Fabulist Fox Sister is a superb entr’acte of history and comedy, and where the ghouls shudder at some of the musical numbers and filming techniques, the heavens praise Conley’s performance and Bateman’s co-writing.

Review published for The Reviews Hub

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