FringeReview UK 2021
Director Adam Lenson, Book and Lyrics Michael Conley, Music Luke Bateman, Musical Direction by Tamara Seringer, Choreography by Sam Spencer-Lee, Set and Costume Design by Libby Todd, lit by Matt Daw, Adam Fisher Sound Design. Livestream production Christian Czornyj, Stage Manager Roni Neale. Till January 31st .
1892? Looks it with the gaslit lamp, antimassacared chair parlour stage on a Persian rug. But this cheery séance by the surviving Fabulous Fox Sister Kate – OK Michael Conley – looks like creating another fake apparition. An audience – laughing at an f-ing and blinding ‘shit-show’ in 1892… then told ‘You’re here to hear my story. Fuck it, I’m feeling generous ‘our story’, yes my sisters may be dead, but they are not forgotten, well they are, but I remember them.’
And it’s all true, the Fox sisters, the creators of séance. Well bar the telling. Composer Luke Bateman and book-and-lyricist Conley belt out a sort of vaudevillian San Francisco camp. Another Southwark Playhouse hit filmed in December to join the simply insane number of productions this theatre is releasing now. Just as they’ve been doing these past years and will do in their new theatre.
Of course the audience is an illusion too, we’re in lockdown. But we’re time-travelling. Maggie’s recently dead, Leah far longer ‘not long enough’ and this is Kate’s version.
Director Adam Lenson runs this 73 minutes with such engaging tightness it seems more like 45. Book and lyrics by Michael Conley are naturally tailored by the artist, and the period-manifesting music Luke Bateman is much stronger than you might expect (well that’s why it’s in the Southwark). Musical direction’s by Tamara Seringer, choreography by Sam Spencer-Lee, the slowly-revealing intimate set and shiny widow’s bun and dark brown costume design by Libby Todd. Special mention must be made too of lighting by Matt Daw: it shifts and gleams, shadows troughs and suggests dimensions and finally becomes a little of the action itself. Adam Fisher’s sound design creates a tight envelope so the voice is centred.
Kate started covering her noisy toe-popping at nine – ‘Popping My Toes’ is a toe-tapper – to her furious mother as an emanation of a murdered tramp. She’s determined to make it and ‘I Don’t Want This Little Life (I’m built for better things)’ a torch song which returns is utterly memorable. Kate’s sisters join in – Maggie mainly after Leah marries banker till she falls in love herself with a handsome hunter-out of fake mediums. ‘A hot piece of ass’ as Kate demurely puts it.
Fan base includes Elizabeth Barratt Browning, Arthur Conan Doyle, Abraham Lincoln… And after the Civil War, love of her life ‘Jim’, marriage and children, the return of her now widowed sister Maggie, Kate hits London in 1871 as a missionary, ‘an interesting position’. She’s big in London, then meets ‘Glen’. Problem is both ‘Jim’ and ‘Glen’ are well – Glenlivet is more accurate.
Husband dead and bankrupt, kicked out of London, Leah’s denunciation, children removed and restored, well there’s always drunk sister Maggie. Alas now reformed and Catholic Maggie encourages a fabulous volte-face, a sell-out public admission of fraud, though Spiritualism can’t be stopped, and we’re treated to Kate’s repudiation of repudiation. She misses us all – in spirit anyway.
There’s fabulous moments – as in being the originator act challenged by imitators encouraging innovations like table tapping, manifestations like ectoplasm – the band themselves led by Adam Lenson table-tap throughout as it were. Who’d have thought spiritualism would turn out a microcosm of capitalist rivalry, brand recognition and perpetual new features?
‘If You Believe It’ is a blast worthy to stand beside ‘I Don’t Want This Little Life’ and it takes us to this last performance and the reasons for it. Conley’s vaudeville camp is infectious always engaging and riotously San Fran. With a voice archly confiding and can-belto, crisp and rasping, Conley looks forward to a mighty reckoning in a little room. Daw’s last lighting effect irradiating all is eerie, suggesting a bleak otherwordly dimension decidedly not in the spirit of Kate Fox.
Stunning stand-alone to glow in the dark. Grab it in its brief run then check out Southwark’s site.