THE FABULIST FOX SISTER: Southwark Playhouse Live Stream
Michael Conley as Kate Fox. Photograph Jane Hobson

This year's Winter Southwark Playhouse season is live-streaming three new musicals from its studio space. The first of these, which played on 4 and 5 December 2020, is Luke Bateman and Michael Conley's The Fabulist Fox Sister with Conley performing the role of Kate Fox, 'the mother of all mediums' in this fully staged production. In true wit, Conley conceded that although this may not be the first time he has played to an empty auditorium, this was the first time it was intentional. 

With music by Bateman and books/lyrics by Conley, The Fabulist Fox Sister is loosely inspired by the true story of the Fox sisters, three 19th century New Yorkers, associated with the early days of spiritualism. And what a fab production this is. 

The tale hearkens to the spring of 1848 when Kate Fox and her sisters, Maggie and Leah, through 'horrible deception' used foot tapping trickery to invent the notion of 
séances. It was a time when New York rural communities were desperate to believe in something, to connect with lost souls, having been rocked by the deaths of many sons in the American Civil War. In their desperation, families needed to restore faith and if the Fox sisters could provide this, why not! 'If you believe it, is it still a lie? If you believe it, that that makes it true!' What began as an April Fool's prank some years before had developed into a mass quasi-religious movement, drawing a strong parallel with current day cults, which draw in those who have low self-esteem, who have lost all hope and seek meaning to their lives. Such is the nature of these folk that they are willingly hoodwinked and reeled in.

Believing herself to be 'built for bigger things' Kate saw this deception as her means of escape from the narrow confines that awaited her. Remembering that this was years before women were recognised as individuals, where their futures were mapped out as mothers, spinsters, wives or nuns. Kate could shun the tedium and monotony in store for her and lead an exciting, independent life by exploiting her prank to an ever-gullible, fee-paying clientele or, as she preferred to call them, willing punters.

Now, years later (1892) she is to perform her final 
séance but on her own terms. Playfully conjuring up the spectrums of her departed sisters Maggie and Leah, she will tell the story of their lives and the new 'religion' they had created. Of course, her version of events is one-sided without any input by her siblings and as such may be a distorted version of their truth. But never mind. There is justification to their con as Kate (Conley) through song and monologue reveals the service they had performed to the needy, who wanted to believe and so fill the gap in their lives.

But now she is bored, having spent 40 years creating this illusion, of conjuring up spirits, holding séances and sitting by the same table. Dying herself, she is casting off her role, but insisting that it was worthy and that she had achieved her objective, to escape the narrow confines and to be somebody.

Directed by Adam Lenson, with musical supervision by Tamara Saringer and effective set/costume design by Libby Todd, The Fabulist Fox Sister is a 'scathing and sardonic one person musical' inspired by their story and played with full conviction by Conley, who elicits empathy at every turn and with each number. Such is the power of his performance that in this production we, the audience, too are buying into the illusion. After all, Conley is playing the role of Kate, which in itself may be considered a con, but effectively so. 

With recorded applause, (perhaps some live by the team present at the filming), to add to the vibrancy of the production, Conley effects a strong performance and with less than ladylike language at times offers 70 minutes of online entertainment during these strange times. Despite the independence of this pre-feminist individual, his portrayal of Kate is sublime. She is majestic, powerful and yet vulnerable. It is entirely credible that she has achieved the fame she so craved. Convincingly and with strength of, er, spirit, Conley has grasped her essence. 'If people want to believe in something, why not me!' And, as she proclaims, she was not one of the fabulist Fox sisters but THE Fabulist Fox sister.

I would have cheered had I not been at home, in front of my computer screen, watching this virtual production. Hats off to Conley for his exciting performance and to the team for creating the innovative The Fabulist Fox Sister.

Photograph: Jane Hobson

Production: 4/5 December 2020