New musical theatre gets haunted by the intriguing charms and waspish humour of The Fabulist Fox Sister
“Tonight is going to be different”
There’s something just a little bit perverse about the scheduling of new musical The Fabulist Fox Sister, seeing its third and final performance up against Strictly Come Dancing’s much-heralded Musicals Week. Of course, any spotlight on the world of musical theatre is to be welcomed in these trying times and it was nice to see the likes of fresher shows Waitress and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie alongside the all-too-predictable Phantom. But the continued focus on big West End shows does make it trickier for small shows to break through, to reach those audiences who’ve been conditioned to expect crashing chandeliers at every turn.
With music by Luke Bateman and book and lyrics by Michael Conley The Fabulist Fox Sister ably demonstrates that a reduction in scale doesn’t necessarily equate a loss in impact. Indeed, the particular intimacy gained in a live-streamed environment like that far outweighs the experience of straining to see from the balcony of any number of West End venues. Taking the true story of Kate Fox – who with her sisters pioneered the movement of spiritualism – as a starting point and fashioning from it an entertaining monologue with songs, this is a thrilling taste of what musicals can also be.
We start in New York City in 1892 where we meet Kate as she holds one final séance to commune with her sisters Maggie and Leah to tell the story of her life, how they basically invented the idea of séances and sold it to a gullible public who gobbled them up. But success comes at a cost and with bitter humour, Conley’s Kate regales us with tales of sisterly fights, alcohol discovered and the inside track on an astonishing long con. This waspish memoir of a show occasionally teeters intriguingly on the edge of cabaret but there’s something profound here too, as it shows us how easy it is to sell a populist lie to an audience with a desperate craving – here, the grieving families of the American Civil War found themselves ripe for exploitation.
Adam Lenson’s direction toys interestingly with the format, introducing (canned?) applause, dramatically switching up camera angles, and this can at times feel a little experimental. Which in fact it is, he’s boldly at the vanguard here of developing what live digital theatre can look like and do. Libby Todd’s design and Matt Daw’s lighting do well to conjure atmosphere and Tamara Saringer’s musical direction with percussionist Becky Brass is brilliantly supplemented by their spectral cameos as the other Fox sisters. And with the unfortunate postponement of Public Domain, you now have three more opportunities to catch this interesting show this coming weekend.