It’s 1892. Reaching the end of her life and career as the inventor of seances, Kate Fox materialises through The Fabulist Fox Sister, a bewitchingly hilarious play by Michael Conley and Luke Bateman.
A deliciously balanced concoction of dynamic monologue and musical numbers on a neat, cabaret-style stage, The Fabulist Fox Sister adopts a confessional form as Kate indulges us in the life, lies and lamentations behind the invention of spiritualism. “People want to believe in something, why not me?” she asks, as she works to justify it all to herself, as much as her audience.
The musical numbers (accompanied by instrumental performances from Tamara Saringer and Becky Brass) are brimming with clever rhymes and revelations, adding an accessible emphasis and theatrical wit to some of the most tragic and morally difficult moments in Kate’s story.
Timing is absolutely key in musical comedy and, since the show is broadcast live, the slick delivery from the production team is a testament to their preparation and prowess in their adaptation. Clearly keen to playfully exploit the digital toolkit, an aerial shot works well when Kate sings of her audience “looking for God, but they’re looking at me”, but clever cinematography is somewhat diluted when this angle returns numerous times with less symbolic presence.
Sporadic moments of canned laughter are also confusingly placed; positioned only after certain gags, this decision in the sound design feels born from a self-consciousness in the script,rather than a necessary ingredient.
Together with an overarching meta-theatrical conceit surrounding how “faith is just imagination when it’s in excess”, a deeply personal sadness penetrates this interpretation of Kate’s life. Unsure, at times, of her own history (whether down to Conley’s own inevitably limited research, or Kate’s real prolonged struggle with alcoholism and her identity) she is wretchedly preoccupied with her disappearance into memory. With a desperate repetition, she reminds us that, whether we believe in her spiritual pursuits or not, she was real. “You must believe me”, implores a character with tragic concern for affirming her own legacy.
Torn between ethics and her need to survive, Kate’s conflict as to whether she believed in her own practice is also handled with subtle theatrical cynicism under Adam Lenson’s direction. Even as the show reaches its powerful supernatural conclusion, when the set is re-revealed, covered in cobwebs and haunted by Kate’s own spirit, she is, somehow, still unsure.
Conley captures Kate with a sophisticated and down-to-earth humour, sensitively indicative of a life on stage and a thickly defensive skin of sass developed as a coping mechanism during a life of lies and loss. While the drag element of the casting queers the character, and supplements a narrative circling identity and façade, I can’t help but be troubled by the irony of moments where the script pokes at 19th century spiritualism being the only stage for women to speak publicly. As a male-identifying performer reduces a real woman to stereotypically feminine characterisation, is he not speaking on behalf of a woman just as much as Kate was only heard when “speaking on behalf of a (dead) man”?
Although certain production elements need a little more convincing, the spellbinding energy sustained throughout this detailed account of a complex life cannot be disputed. Whether a cynic or a believer, the spirits of any audience will be lifted by The Fabulist Fox Sister.
The Fabulist Fox Sister streamed from Southwark Playhouse until 5th December. For more information, see the Southwark Playhouse website.