“a staggering performance and an excellent production”
If there’s one thing that the past nine months have proven, it’s that online theatre is hard. There’s an energy that doesn’t seem to translate, the lack of audience response feels like a detraction, and you’re beholden to sub-film set cinematography. The Fabulist Fox Sister does something quite special though: in many ways it feels like rather than adapting theatre to an online format, it’s crafting something entirely new. Mostly, it does it exceptionally well.
That’s been the mission statement for director and producer Adam Lenson since lockdown descended; to successfully transpose the theatrical experience into a digital format – and this musical pulls it off with aplomb. The show is livestreamed from the Southwark Playhouse so no spontaneity is lost, the musicians play live and in situ with the actor, and the use of multiple camera angles and shots start to blur the lines between the cinematic and theatrical.
Amidst the flames of this burgeoning new form is the perfect story for it: that of Kate Fox, the ‘mother of all mediums’ who more or less birthed spiritualism, popularising seances with her sisters Leah and Margaret (who in the show form the two-piece keys and percussion band). Framed as Kate’s retirement show, she takes us through the lies, loves, and losses of her life through a stellar performance from Michael Conley. The text is rich with quips, black comedy, and smart callbacks that Conley knows exactly how to work every syllable of – though it’s somewhat expected since he also wrote the book and lyrics. Luke Bateman’s music largely keeps pace, weaving a seamless journey between speech and song, and giving a campy cabaret-style pulse to the show. A couple of songs sound a little too familiar to each other musically but it’s by no means going to ruin your night.
The only thing that did break the immersion was the use of laughter and applause, which I believe came from the crew in the theatre but may well have been canned. Huge belly laughs sounded for some jokes where most received nothing; similarly around three songs received applause at the end. It was unclear if this was trying to signify something and the inconsistency ultimately distracted. If intentional, it was a strange directorial choice from Lenson, who otherwise facilitated a staggering performance and an excellent production overall.
What was most clear was the respect that The Fabulist Fox Sister displayed for the new form that it occupied – it didn’t feel resentful or uncomfortable, but confident and innovative. It bodes very well for the show’s companion piece Public Domain which is livestreaming next week, and for the future of live digital theatre as a whole.
“Highly recommended for its sparkling script, extraordinary performances and wonderful design”
It’s not even Christmas yet, but if you and your kids are already suffering from a surfeit of seasonal festivities and are looking for something that won’t jingle bells and ho, ho, ho at you, (except in a non-Christmassy way) then hurry along to the Lyric Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. Here you will find the delightful Oi Frog and Friends! Based on the best selling children’s book by Kes Gray and Jim Field, this fifty five minute entertainment provides all the elements of a good story, presented in a very young child friendly way. So child friendly, in fact, that this reviewer observed at least one infant happily enjoying the action. Kudos to the parents for getting their kids to good theatre at such a young age, and kudos to adaptors Emma Earle, Zoe Squire, Luke Bateman and Richy Hughes for managing such a seamless transition from the page to the stage.
Oi Frog and Friends! is not just entertainment, however. It has some important things to teach about finding one’s place (and sitting still on it) , and all the fun one can have with words while doing it. It’s a simple enough story. At the Sittingbottom School, (ho, ho) the bossy prefect Cat has the rule book about who sits on what—all determined by what rhymes with your name. Easy enough if you are a hare (chair), a fox (box) or a cat (mat). But what if you are an ostrich or a badger? Into this rule bound classroom comes Frog, a new student whose questions (and new rhymes) overturn the established order, much to Cat’s dismay, and the horror of the local media—a guest star turn by Meerkat TV’s Bob Burrows. (There’s a lot of funny punning as well as rhyming in this script, and you get drawn in. Oops).
The audience is enticed into this enchanting world by four actors who manage a breathtaking quantity of performance skills at breakneck speed. With the able direction of Emma Earle, they portray any number of animals using a combination of costumes and puppetry, and of course, sing and dance when appropriate as well. Particularly outstanding are John Winchester as Frog, and Darren Seed as Dog, but really the whole cast is brilliant at the way they leap nimbly between roles, including assisting one another when some nifty bunraku-type puppetry skills are required. Zoe Squire and Yvonne Stone, responsible for design, have come up with inventive creations that flawlessly integrate both actor and puppet into the character they play. Dog’s design is particularly clever in this respect, and it takes a skilled performer to be able to manage all the moving pieces in such a convincing way. Cat, played by Lucy Tuck, is a more conventionally designed character but still demands a lot of athleticism and comic ability. Tuck’s portrayal of a cat who is terrified of losing the last of her nine lives, is both funny and touching. The fourth member of the cast is Simon Yadoo as Cheetah, although he assists with the puppetry and takes on so many roles that it’s easy to lose count of how many times he changes costumes (and puppets). Still, his Carmen Miranda inspired turn as a Cheetah that must sit on a fajita was a big hit with the kids in the audience, and yes, even the big kids otherwise known as their parents.
In short, Oi Frog and Friends! is the perfect show to counter the pre-Christmas blahs, and satisfy the kid in all of us. Highly recommended for its sparkling script, extraordinary performances and wonderful design. It’s a rhyming good time! O.K. O.K—I’ll show myself out.