What Happened to Connie Converse?
Róis Doherty and Xenia Lily
Kings Arms, Salford
The 2023 GM Fringe is not short of ambitious shows. In the tradition of the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, Róis Doherty and Xenia Lily investigate the true-life disappearance of singer Connie Converse who vanished in 1974.
Connie Converse came from a strict Baptist family and, it is implied, overindulged in alcohol to cope with an awareness of how they disapproved or her career choice. Although Converse performed her songs for friends, she had little professional success and eventually left New York to live with her brother and write for an academic journal. Declining physical health and the onset of depression may have contributed to her decision to write to her friends discussing her intention to make a new life somewhere else and simply disappear.
Doherty and Lily write with the determination of fans—anxious to be respectful and avoid any inaccuracies or sensationalism. As a result, details from Converse’s biography are presented in an understated manner rather than dramatised. Her only appearance on television is not presented as a dramatic make-or-break chance to hit the big time but simply mentioned as a fact. The play is distinguished by Lily, who in addition to co-writing the play performs as Converse, singing live, stark versions of over half a dozen of her songs.
The only point about which the authors speculate is Converse’s sexuality, which was indeterminate but, in the play, it is suggested a same-sex relationship contributed to her torment at straying from the strict morals of her upbringing. The lingering effects of her birth family’s religious beliefs prompt Converse to reject her alternate family in New York leaving her isolated.
The play falls into two acts, with the first being Converse’s bohemian lifestyle in New York and the second her return to mundane suburban living. Factual details—Converse’s music being rediscovered by way of a radio interview and a private investigator being hired by the family—are used to provide a loose framing sequence. Co-directors Róis Doherty and Rosa Graham gild the lily to illustrate Converse’s boozy lifestyle. Everybody is shown to be drinking like fish, including the investigator hired to look into her disappearance, who guzzles gin while making his report. Perhaps not the best way to impress a client.
There are a range of theories as to why Converse was not successful as a singer. She first tried to make an impression in 1949 when the market for folk singers tended to be dominated by issue- or narrative-based songs, and her introspective personal songwriting style would not come into fashion until the navel-gazing singer-songwriter boom in the 1970s. However, Xenia Lily’s performance suggests she was in many ways her own worst enemy and willing to self-sabotage her career.
The script does not show any ambition by Converse to secure professional success by, for example, getting an agent and publicising her songs by playing live gigs. Xenia Lily goes further and suggests Converse’s personality was surly and aggressive, and her insecurities made her prone to reject anyone who tried to help her career. The reluctance to dramatise, however, means this is not developed into a classic tragic character flaw, there is no sense of events heading towards a dark climax made inevitable by Converse’s personality.
What Happened to Connie Converse? is a sincere tribute to a troubled soul. However, the determination to avoid any speculation or sensationalism results in a play which, while respectful, has a distinct lack of drama.
Reviewer: David Cunningham