One night – no, not just any night: April Fool’s Eve, March 31st, 1847 – Kate and Maggie Fox, two young sisters in rural upstate New York, tell their mother that their house is haunted. The ghost makes mysterious, echoey, rattling sounds – their mother freaks out – she invites some local people to hear it – they ask the ghost questions – it answers – everyone goes mad for it. News spreads of the Hydesville Haunting. Kate and Maggie’s older married sister Leah – by all accounts, a sharper woman than her mother – hears what’s going on. Leah quickly realises that the girls are in fact tapping their double-jointed toes against the floorboards – knock once for yes, twice for no – but nonetheless sees an opportunity to monetise the local spirit-fever. The Fox Sisters are booked for big theatrical events in town halls – they graduate to New York City – the boom-years – then Maggie marries a man who dies young and Kate goes to London. They both start drinking. Things go downhill. In 1888 – The Death Blow to Spiritualism – they publicly reveal their secrets. One year later, they try to retract their retraction. Four years later, they die.
Michael Conley plays Kate Fox in The Fabulist Fox Sister, a sozzled, sweary monologue interspersed with witty musical numbers that rattles chronologically through the true-ish story outlined above. The conceit is that Kate is addressing the audience at her last séance (“on this side of the table, anyway!”) in 1892. Her reasons for telling her story, at long last, on tonight of all nights, are a little sketchy, but whatever – she hooks us early (“I like my audience like I like my gifts: large, attractive and wrapt”) and we’re off. I suspect that Conley’s characterisation of her as an embittered diva with a strong line in sardonic dismissal was a choice motivated primarily by entertainment value than by emotional insight, but he makes it work. As the show goes on, it becomes broadly clear that she’s trying to justify a life of lies, never quite acknowledging that she was ever in the wrong. The two most-reprised songs of the evening – ‘Bigger Things’ and ‘If They Believe It’ – reveal the two main prongs of her argument.
‘Bigger Things’ is first addressed to Kate’s mother – who she repeatedly refers to as an “idiot” – back in Hydesville: “I don’t want your little life, no offence, I’m commensurately built for bigger things. What you have is not enough.” The musical makes the case that in the mid-nineteenth century, amidst traditional expectations that women would get married, have babies and stay in the domestic sphere, “talking to the ghosts of little dead children” gave women spiritualists an escape route, and even a chance to speak from public platforms and stages. Lying to their huge and gullible audiences offered the Fox Sisters a way out of Hydesville: can you blame them if they took it? Conley – who also wrote the book and lyrics – poses this question effectively, and with some degree of nuance. That said, every time this theme came to the fore in the narrative, I found myself wondering why Kate wasn’t being played by a woman. Conley’s performance, directed by Adam Lenson, was pretty perfect for what it was – looking like Professor Snape, in a shiny black wig and long black dress, he Fosse-necked and played the invisible crowd like Liza Minnelli – but I don’t think a high camp female part always has to be played by a cis gay man ‘doing a bit’ in a dress, and in this instance, the feminist references jarred a little with the panto dame / Lady Bracknell trope.
In ‘If You Believe It’, Kate asks, rhetorically, open-armed: “people want to believe in something, why not me?” She spins her deceptions as a kindness, giving the people what they wanted. The show, though, hints at other, less altruistic, reasons for treating the truth as malleable: early on, Kate declares archly, “I had never had so much attention. It suited me.” People still give lies and liars attention, of course, in these days of birthers and anti-vaxxers and QAnon conspiracists, although their reasons for doing so are perhaps less obvious. It’s pretty well-known that Spiritualism’s hey-day came in the years after the First World War, when bereft and traumatised people found comfort in ‘making contact’ with their war-dead sons. In Hilary Mantel’s novel Beyond Black, though, the medium Alison Hart plies a successful trade in drab 21st-century English commuter towns, built around army bases and motorways. By speaking to their dead relatives, she gives her modern audiences a way to counter their sense of having lost a connection with their historical and geographical roots. Mantel then draws a link between this desire for rootedness, answered by spiritualists, and populist ethno-nationalist movements that encourage people to define themselves against ‘foreigners’, immigrants and asylum seekers. The Fabulist Fox Sister doesn’t quite take this step, but it is concerned with the effects of lying at a national scale, and it does make the implication that fraudulent spiritualists and contemporary politicians have some significant things in common.
It’s also way more fun than I’ve just made it sound there. I watched it at home, as a video stream of Conley performing it live at the Southwark Playhouse, and it felt good and fizzy watching him tell a story, fluffing a couple of lines here and there; like my brain was working in real-time, the feeling I’ve most missed about not being able to watch live theatre. Libby Todd’s set design worked really well: just a square of dark red carpet, a swag curtain, flickering gas lights, and a table and chair surrounded by darkness, but it fit nicely into my YouTube window and held a great ghostly sting in its tail. There wasn’t a dud tune or boring ballad in Luke Bateman’s music and Conley’s lyrics contained some excellent Cole Porter-ish rhymes: “Levitical / arthritical” in ‘Poppin’ My Toes’, about the way the sisters cracked their toe knuckles to make ghostly noises, and “glasses / antimacassars” in a song about searching for fucks to give. Summing up her success in New York and London, Kate tells her audience, “I séanced my ass off.” She did it again at the Southwark Playhouse.
The Fabulist Fox Sister was livestreamed from Southwark Playhouse on 4th and 5th December. More info here.