I felt a bit bad going into Queen of the Mist last night, because I’d never heard of its subject: Anna Edson Taylor, who in 1901 on her 63rd birthday, became the first person to survive going over the Niagara Falls in a barrel (as one does). But as it turns out I needn’t have worried, because very few people have heard of her; despite her achievement, which was motivated by dreams of fame and fortune, Taylor quickly lost the public’s interest and died a pauper 20 years later.
Annie (Trudi Camilleri) tells her extraordinary story in Michael John LaChiusa’s 2011 musical, which receives a resounding European premiere at the Brockley Jack courtesy of the excellently named Pint of Wine. As a production, it’s hard to fault; it’s polished, looks great, and is exquisitely sung by a cast of seven, who share the stage with Jordan Li-Smith’s equally impressive band.
Where there are flaws, they belong to the show itself, which doesn’t have a great deal of plot to speak of; it reaches its dramatic climax by the end of Act 1 – when Annie and her custom-made barrel go over the Falls – but even then, it doesn’t devote more than a few minutes to this pivotal event. By the time we return from the interval, the adventure’s all over and things are already going wrong for Annie. She’s struggling to keep people interested in her “deed” (largely due to her refusal to answer the recurring question of Act 2: what did it feel like going over the Falls?), she’s fired her manager Frank Russell (Will Arundel), her relationship with her sister Jane (Emily Juler) is at breaking point; even her barrel’s been stolen. A few grimly humorous moments aside, there’s not a glimmer of the excitement or ambition of Act 1, and as such the show’s second act feels much longer than the first.
Even so, the score does include some enjoyable – and rather catchy – musical numbers, and the cast really are excellent. Trudi Camilleri is a formidable lead with incredibly powerful vocals; her Anna isn’t particularly likeable, but while we may have little sympathy for her, it’s hard not to respect her intelligence, determination and courage. The complex relationships she has with her conservative sister and charismatic manager are well played by Emily Juler and Will Arundel respectively, and Emma Ralston, Tom Blackmore, Conor McFarlane and Andrew Carter provide versatility and strong vocals as a host of other characters – among them temperance campaigner Carrie Nation, a young soldier on his way to fight in World War 1, a mysterious man with his hand wrapped in a handkerchief (it makes sense at the time), and Annie’s exasperated new manager(s) following Frank’s departure.
Considering the intimacy of the performance space (a decent proportion of which is taken up by the band) and the number of times the cast have to enter and exit the stage in different guises, Dom O’Hanlon’s tightly choreographed production feels surprisingly uncluttered; nor is there ever any danger of the singers being drowned out by the orchestra. Having said that, the production could certainly benefit from a larger stage, if only to accommodate the sheer vocal power of the cast, which at times does threaten to become overwhelming in such a small venue.
Queen of the Mist is, first and foremost, Anna Edson Taylor’s little-known story, but it also has things to say about the lengths to which people will go for fame, and the fickle nature of both public and press – both of which are issues we still grapple with today. The show is not without flaws and does feel longer than it needs to be, but even taking into account these shortcomings, the quality of this excellent production cannot be denied.
Queen of the Mist is at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 27th April.
Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉