“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.
“the relish with which these two outstanding performers reprise their roles is a joy to witness.”
It seems an age ago now but back in March, when the New York Governor ordered Broadway’s theatres to close as the coronavirus pandemic spread through the city, there was still the feeling in London that ‘it won’t happen to us’. But lo and behold, four days later, the Prime Minister’s statement ensured our theatres followed suit. The mass exodus of London’s West End and the fringe left an eerie silence that filled the playhouses, as they started to gather dust. Many, like Southwark Playhouse, remained frozen in time; the empty music stands, props on the stage floor and, lit only by the ghost light; the centre-piece grand piano, silent on the now-motionless revolve. Waiting.
The waiting was longer than we initially thought, but seven months later to the day, and leading the way in the reopening of our theatres, Katy Lipson (in association with Edward Prophet and People Entertainment Group) kicks off where we left off with Jason Robert Brown’s powerful two-hander, “The Last Five Years”. Despite the plexiglass and socially distant seating, as the first notes fill the auditorium it feels like the intervening months never really happened. In tune with the time-twisting concept of the piece the audience are transported back to March of this year into an alternative existence wherein this nightmare may never have happened. The energy of Oli Higginson and Molly Lynch is undimmed and the relish with which these two outstanding performers reprise their roles is a joy to witness. They tell us the story, through song, of two lovers, Jamie and Cathy, as they travel through five years of their relationship. He is moving forward while she proceeds in reverse. They meet in the middle, fleetingly, on their wedding day.
It is a clever device that gives us insider knowledge. We know how it is going to end right from the start and are free to concentrate on the journey each character makes. The downside is the inevitable predictability, but the focus is on Brown’s compositions; all beautifully crafted, with a range of styles; yet connected with common threads and leitmotifs. And director Jonathan O’Boyle has introduced a third character to the narrative: the grand piano that takes centre stage, around which Jamie and Cathy circle, powerless against its gravitational pull. Matching Higginson’s and Lynch’s faultless interpretation of the characters is their musicianship; using the piano as an emotional relay, often passing the baton between the bars of a tune. The opening “Still Hurting” shows off Lynch’s soaring and searing vocals in a heart-wrenching moment of resigned pain, while Higginson’s optimistic belt of “Moving Too Fast” encapsulates Jamie’s joyful optimism. Ninety minutes later Higginson beautifully mourns the ending of their story in “Nobody Needs to Know” while Lynch has usurped his dreams for the buoyant “I Can Do Better Than That”.
In between, the pitch shifts are perfect as the two advance and retreat along their own paths. Ironically, that is the show’s one minor flaw. It is easy to forget, when the actors are sometimes only inches apart, that they are years apart in the narrative. It often feels that we are merely witnessing a couple who just aren’t suited to each other at all. He’s looking forward, she’s looking back, and this unintentional self-centredness occasionally leaves us cold. It is only when you make a conscious effort to return to the theme that you reconnect.
Yet the performances consistently manage to sweep this slight distraction away with their charisma and talent. Backed by the sheer energy of Musical Director, George Dyer, and the five-piece band, we are spellbound, and our belief in the magic of musical theatre is unquestionably reaffirmed.