Review: One Giant Leap at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Anna Karenina, Macbeth, Othello, Three Sisters, Frankenstein, The White Rose, Taro… Over the last five years, Arrows & Traps have proved time and again that they know how to do serious drama (and also that there are an awful lot of different ways to die). That label cannot be applied in any conceivable way to their new play One Giant Leap, which is a very silly story with no other mission in mind but providing two hours of pure entertainment.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

It’s 1969, and Apollo 11 is all set to launch for the Moon. But it’s too hot up there to film Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s one small step for man, so CIA Agent Harris (Alex Stevens) has come to cash-strapped TV producer Edward Price (Christopher Tester) with a request: he needs him to fake the Moon Landing. There’s just one problem – Price’s cast and crew of misfits are too wrapped up in their own issues to focus on the job at hand, and time is ticking away…

Writer and director Ross McGregor has thrown literally everything at this historical sci-fi romantic comedy (there’s no kitchen sink but there is an alluring stepladder) and the result is an often chaotic but always enjoyable romp that culminates in a musical number I don’t think any of us will be forgetting any time soon. The characters are stereotypes – the arrogant leading man, the scantily clad actress, the frustrated producer – and the plot relatively predictable, but there’s enough detail to ensure none of them are ever lacking in substance. At times, this detail actually works against the production; with every character getting their own story, there’s a lot to try and keep track of at any given moment. This also means that the play’s conclusion, particularly following the unbridled hilarity of the Moon Landing sequence, feels a bit like a box ticking exercise to ensure we’re not left with any unfinished plot threads.

That said, one of the best things about One Giant Leap is that the cast are clearly having an absolute blast. It’s hard to tell who’s having more fun up there: Will Pinchin as Howard, the world’s clumsiest cameraman; Lucy Ioannou as sweet but insecure Alchamy; Steven Jeram as casanova Daniel; Vivian Belosky as sharp-tongued and quite possibly permanently green Linda. Alex Stevens’ CIA Agent Harris showcases some impressive accent switching (and interesting wardrobe choices), and Christopher Tester and Charlie Ryall engage in excellent verbal sparring as increasingly desperate ex-spouses Edward and Carol. And Daniel Ghezzi, appropriately enough, steals every scene he’s in as frustrated actor and lover of all things jazz hands, Perry.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

As Arrows & Traps arrives at a crossroads before embarking on a new chapter with The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde later this year, One Giant Leap feels like the company is taking a welcome opportunity to pause and let off some steam. It’s not Shakespeare, and it doesn’t have the beauty and eloquence of, say, The White Rose or Taro – though it is still visually quite a feast, with an incredible set designed by Justin Williams and some unforgettable costumes from Delyth Evans. I didn’t always know exactly what was going on but I had fun trying to figure it out, and sometimes that’s all you need. So why not boldly go and get a ticket for two hours of silliness and escapism, and – for once! – a happy ending.

One Giant Leap is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 27th July.

Arrows & Traps: What’s Next?

In a couple of weeks, Arrows & Traps’ seventeenth production opens at the Brockley Jack – and for anyone who’s been to see them in action recently, it may come as a bit of a surprise. From 2nd July, the thirteen-time Offie-nominated company will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landings in their own unique style with One Giant Leap, a brand new comedy written and directed by Ross McGregor.

Last week, in the first part of our Q&A, Ross told us a bit about where Arrows & Traps came from and the journey so far. In Part 2, he’s looking to the future – and it turns out there’s plenty to see…

Your upcoming show is a bit different to most of your previous productions. What made you go for a comedy this time, and how have you approached it as a writer? It must be very different to the other plays you’ve written for Arrows?

Yes, absolutely!  And what a relief it is.  I’m so happy to be working on a play that doesn’t end with: “and then she was executed by the Third Reich,” or “and then she was hit by a tank,” or “and then she threw herself in front of a train,” or “and then her husband’s shot,” or “and then they both die on the ice,” or “and then everybody died”… Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we got to tell so many stories over the last sixteen productions, but my goodness, haven’t the majority of the storylines been so f*cking depressing?!

I guess the exception, not sure if you remember this one, would be The Gospel According to Philip, which was a sketch show comedy we did back in 2016 about the last few weeks of the life of Jesus, basically the story of Easter, told as a satire. I didn’t write that one, but I had such fun directing it, and everyone loved it at the Jack, it was an absolute storm of a show – such a joy. I wanted to go back to that and spend a summer working on something lighter, where nobody is destroyed by fascism, but where we can also push the boundaries and try our hand at that rarest of all theatrical genres – the sci-fi comedy.

One Giant Leap is basically a “what if” kind of a story – set in July 1969, where a two-bit run-down shoddy little TV company is asked by the CIA to fake the moon landing. The idea is that whilst NASA can get to the moon, all the cameras they test just melt in the simulation of the extreme heat on the moon’s surface, so they need someone to fake the footage for them to prove they got there. Which would be fine, but the TV company they ask to do it has just had their sci-fi show Moonsaber cancelled after its first season, and everyone has fallen out with each other, and is leaving the show, so there’s a lot of confusion and misdirection as the producer has to basically con them all to come back, and somehow pull off the biggest conspiracy in history with these bunch of misfits.

It’s certainly different in terms of the fact that it’s wholly original, and obviously a complete fiction. All the characters are products of my imagination, and it has no basis in fact or adaptation whatsoever, which has been super fun to start from scratch. It is also the silliest, most chaotic and most ridiculous thing I’ve ever written – it’s Noises Off meets Space Balls, I guess, or Hail Caesar meets The Play That Goes Wrong. I just love it, and I just know the actors in the company are going to have a ball doing it.

My approach for One Giant Leap is to tell a fun spin on the greatest event in history since World War II, to give the audiences a hilarious night out, telling a story that some of the audience, certainly those of my parents’ generation, can get a little nostalgic over because it’s set in an era that they were part of. Most of all, I just want to stage the funniest thing South London will see all summer. It’s going to be great. Everything about that period is so iconic, the music, the clothing, the language, the political figures, the movies, the cars, the culture – it’s so vibrant and giddy – and we’re literally building the moon as part of the set, so that’s worth a look all by itself.

After that you’re heading off on tour with Jekyll and Hyde – what prompted you to head out of London and what are you most looking forward to about the tour?

After five years, sixteen shows and thirteen award nominations, I feel like we’ve found our USP, and developed a sense of the type of work that we want to produce. And whilst we’ve loved being at the Jack, there comes a point (and for me it came after our production of White Rose last year) where you have to consider what the next step would be in terms of the company, and in terms of our progression both creatively and financially. It seemed like there were two options, to either scale up or down. Either Arrows become a purely artistic venture, done for the love of the process, in which case it only really made sense to do a show a year, and also only in the summer as to not interfere with my day job as an English/Drama teacher, or to scale up and take the company further. As much as I love the Brockley Jack, we all know it’s not about to get 150 more seats added to it, so it’s about reformulating the model and making it work for more audience engagement, and a wider profile beyond SE London. So I decided I’d try touring.

The model is that we will retain the Brockley Jack as a home, always debut each show there, hold the press nights there, and have the 3-4 week run of 15-20 shows as we have in the past, but then to take the show on national tours that are produced and supported for a longer period of time, and run for an extended season of shows. So more shows, less productions, if that makes sense. We’re building a team to support the shows, a tour booker, a producer, a fundraiser, set designer, costume designer, etc – and the cast size has been streamlined to make it viable for a touring model. So in a sense this is the end of an era as the 8-15 person cast just won’t be possible anymore, but I’m excited about the possibilities that touring produces, and I’m very eager to instigate a paid model that edges away from the profit-share fringe structure that unsubsidised theatre often has to be done at. The most exciting part for me is to go to new places and debut our work there, to build new followings and to really work at making this a viable business model. Of course, I’m not expecting a six-figure salary for all, there’s no money in theatre, never has been, but the pride and justice involved in finally being able to pay every single person involved in the show properly for the vast amount of time they put in to each show will be very validating and satisfying when it at last happens.

Tell us a bit about your new Renegade season. How did you select the stories you wanted to tell and which are you most excited about?

The idea with the Renegade season is to continue the work we’ve already been doing, and just go further with it in new areas and new remits. For the last few years our work has been falling into one of two categories, the literary adaptation of classic novels, and the new writing about a historical figure. I want to continue this remit by bringing a conclusion to the Gothic Trilogy that we started with Frankenstein and Dracula, and write a modern political thriller adaptation of Jekyll & Hyde set in the 2020 US Presidential Race. I think, when reading the novella, you get the strong sense of the importance of reputation in Victorian society, and the hypocrisy that so many fell into when they tried to conceal a darker part of themselves, and only present the morally upright version of their personalities. To our modern audiences, and to students of the text, this is quite hard to find a parallel to in our society or see the importance of why something like a “Hyde persona” would need to be concealed, but I think politics still has that sense of moral rectitude and the threat of what a sudden scandal can do to your career – so the political arena seemed a good setting, particularly when you look at our current social climate. Oh and yes, I’m choosing to set it in the States mainly because I’m sick to death of hearing about Brexit, and I certainly don’t want to write a f*cking play about it.

We then plan to follow it up with a rewritten version of our 2017 hit Frankenstein, which was very popular at the time.  I also want to continue our new historical writing slant, but obviously I’m aware that the viable choices for real-life figure is slightly more limited if you want to go outside of London, so I’ve chosen to tackle the origin stories of two of the most iconic figures of the 20th Century, Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe. In CHAPLIN, we’ll deal with how he becomes the Little Tramp, and cover his childhood and upbringing in Victorian London – his story is absolutely breath-taking and heart-breaking – it reads like something ripped out of a Charles Dickens novel. And in Making Marilyn we’re dealing with Norma Jean and her road to Hollywood. Hopefully, we’ll be able to tell you stories that you didn’t know about figures that you are familiar with, and with all prequels, there’s some fun to be there about how exactly the iconic images are created, and the reason behind them.

What made you decide to bring back Frankenstein, and can we expect any other revivals in the future…?

I think, with all of these shows, as the writer, you go through a process working on them. Frankenstein was the first show for Arrows & Traps that I wrote as well as directed, and I think that version was something of a scatter-gun, in terms of the fact that I threw everything that I found interesting about the book and its author onto the stage, it was stuffed with characters and plotlines, almost to confusion-levels, I found. Often, when you get to the last night, you have just worked out what story you wanted to tell, only to have it all be over. I think I’ve managed to refine that over the two years I’ve been writing for Arrows & Traps, but Frankenstein really stands out to me as one that I’d love a second go at writing. Hone and rein it in slightly, make it more about the absent mothers, and the uncaring fathers – less about the romances, and it’s an opportunity to bring back Will Pinchin’s phenomenal performance as the Creature, which really has to go down as a company highlight for me.

I certainly wouldn’t rule out other revivals in the future. I think White Rose and TARO have been my favourite productions so far, and I’d certainly like to bring both back at some point… we shall see what destiny holds. For the moment, there’s certainly a lot going on, and I’m looking forward to building a roster of great productions that are touring, reaching new audiences, and bringing the company to the next level of working that we’ve all been dreaming of since 2014.

Tickets are now on sale for One Giant Leap and The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde. And to keep up to date on all things Arrows, follow @arrowsandtraps on Twitter.

Arrows & Traps: The Story So Far

Over the last five years, thirteen-time Offie-nominated Arrows & Traps have become a regular fixture both on the London fringe scene and on this blog. And the good news is they’re not going anywhere; the future looks bright as they prepare to launch their Renegade season with a new comedy, One Giant Leap, opening next month at the Brockley Jack, followed later this year by a national tour of The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde.

The tour marks a new chapter for the company, and there’s a lot to talk about – but first, here’s what Arrows Artistic Director Ross McGregor had to say about where it all began…

Photo credit: Arrows & Traps

What was your vision when you established Arrows and Traps and how has that evolved over the years?

Originally, back in 2014, I was contacted by Simon James Collier, a writer/producer/director who was then based at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre, to produce a season of six Shakespeare shows over two years. Unfortunately we only got to perform two of these – Much Ado About Nothing and The Winter’s Tale – before there was a management change at the L&U, which left me with a half-finished set of ideas and four more plays that I was expecting to do, but then suddenly wasn’t. So rather than give up and go back to my day job with a sour taste in my mouth, I decided to take the rest of the season on as an independent venture. Thus Arrows & Traps was born, and this is also why in the first two years our focus was on Shakespeare – as we went on to do Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth, Twelfth Night and Othello, which completed the set I had planned, and then opened the door to that big question: “What next?”

Right from the beginning of the venture, even before Much Ado, even before we were called “Arrows & Traps”, I knew I wanted to work with Will Pinchin, our resident movement director, as we’d worked together before and I really appreciate what he brings to the room, and how devoted he is to taking my big ideas and making them a reality. One particular moment always sticks with me, that during the tech for Winter’s Tale, I brought in some fabric and some sticks and told him “Right so yeah, we need to build an airship” – and in six hours’ time Will had made one! This is such an over-used phrase in this industry, but Will is genuinely the kindest, most generous person I’ve ever met, and it’s been an honour to have him work with me on so many shows – and it’s such a privilege to have him now acting on stage in our current season of shows, after his Offie-nominated turn as the Creature in Frankenstein, and playing Hans Scholl in The White Rose.

As well as moving away from Shakespeare (for now), we’ve taken on more literary adaptation work, with Frankenstein, Dracula, Crime & Punishment and Anna Karenina – and started to make a series of historical new writing that has been female-led in terms of narratives, about the lives of Sophie Scholl, Anne Lister, and Gerda Taro. It is with these two strains in mind that we move into our new Renegade season.

As the various phases of company cast configurations have come and gone, we now have a full creative team in place that work on each show, and last year we were appointed as the official associate company of the Brockley Jack Theatre, which was a great honour. In terms of the dynamic and company ethos and staging approach, I think our style has remained constant throughout, although perhaps we’ve consolidated it over the years, and since 2017 I’ve been the lead writer for all productions, which has helped us to zone in on precisely what kind of theatre we want to make, what kind of stories we want to tell.

Frankenstein, 2017. Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

If you could do it all again would you do anything differently?

I’d think twice before working with a certain well-known theatre corporation again, that’s for certain. I’m sure they’re very good with their large spaces but with their studios, they’re all about the hire fees, and not at all about supporting or caring for the shows that they get into their spaces. On the other side of the spectrum, the Brockley Jack is run by Kate Bannister and Karl Swinyard, two creatives who care greatly about every show that’s on at the Jack, they go out of the way to help you and make you feel welcome. Having been at the Jack now since 2016, I can safely say they put some other venue managers to shame, they’re incredibly skilled at their jobs, know their audience and their space, there’s nothing they wouldn’t do for you, so we’re really happy there and feel like it’s a theatrical home for us. But that kind of relationship we have with them is rare, and we certainly kissed a few frogs before that, venue-wise.

Other than that, there’s been a few difficult moments, and at times I think I took on too much, or had too many projects on in too short a space of time, and there’s a couple of moments that I look back on and wish I’d been able to see the good from the bad, focused on the strengths of the work, and not dwelt on the stresses, and tiredness, and anxieties that go with self-producing your own fringe theatre work, but it’s often really hard to do that when you’re in the throes of a production.

I’m very proud of the work we’ve made, and the recognition that it’s got, particularly recently, and I do believe that most failures contain a lesson if you look hard enough. I’ve certainly made a fair few mistakes since I started in 2014, but I feel like I’ve learned from each of them, and am looking forward to what the future holds.

Oh, and I wouldn’t do Titus Andronicus again. That show was probably our weakest for many, many reasons, and I think Shakespeare has got better options in the canon. I think I was lured by the fun of the violence and madness and darkness, but lacked the resources to do it properly. But I think that’s the only production I would retract, if I had my time again.

Anna Karenina, 2016. Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

What have been the biggest highlights and challenges – for you as a director and writer, and for the company as a whole? Any favourite productions?

In terms of highlights, both as a director and writer, it would have to be The White Rose. That was the first original piece I wrote, that didn’t have a novel or source text behind it. Being based on a true story, I knew what characters I had to use, what the remit of the story was that I wanted to tell, and where it would ultimately end up – but the beats, scenes and characterisations were all original and written from scratch, which was quite challenging. I was really proud of that show and what it accomplished. To choose a story that not many people in England knew about (Scholl is incredibly well-known in Germany), and to produce it in a summer period (a natural low point in the year for most theatres), and to get 8 five-star reviews, and 4 four-star reviews, as well as an Off West End Award Nomination for Best Production and sell out 96% of the run – it was an incredible experience, and so gratifying. The cast for that one was phenomenal as well, absolutely no weak links, everyone was on their top game and cared so much about telling the story as best we could, and honouring the memories of the real people they were portraying.

Other favourite productions for me have to be Anna Karenina – that was so beautiful, such a good script by Helen Edmundson – and I enjoyed the scale, challenge and detail of Three Sisters, I loved the style and poetry of TARO, and the ferocity and scope of Frankenstein. A personal highlight for me was to get an Off West End Award Nomination for Best New Play, and another for Best Director, both for Gentleman Jack, which I wrote and directed. That was so lovely to hear, I was so honoured, as I’ve sort of fallen into writing plays almost by accident, mainly because I struggled so much with getting the rights to the things I wanted to direct, or found a distinct lack of scripts available on the subjects I wanted to focus on. I just started writing as a sort of solution to the problem of producing the work, not really thinking about what that meant, and how that sort of made me a writer. I sometimes struggle to consider myself as a playwright – but really – I’ve written six now, and nothing’s been dreadful yet, so maybe I should work on changing my self-perception a little.

In terms of challenges, one of the biggest recently was writing Gentleman Jack and TARO both at the same time in six weeks. That was a nightmare. Such a stupid amount of time pressure. I mean, I usually like time pressure, in moderation. I have an odd process for writing as I usually book the slot first, design the posters, write the copy, put the show on sale, then write the script. I know that’s probably sounding like an insane way to do it, but I have a problem with self-discipline, so if I know there’s a date by which I have to get the script done by, no excuses, otherwise I’m going to let my company and the venue down, then that forces me to write it in time. And once I get going, it’s normally quite a quick process, as the characters start to find their voices relatively early on. It’s normally just a case of getting a first draft done in a few weeks, realising where it’s overwritten, and then taking four or five runs at it to edit it down. Most of my stuff has the framework of an adaptation or a true story, so there’s always a narrative structure preset for me. It becomes largely about working out how to tell the story, rather than working out what the story is. So yes, that seems to work normally, but having to do two plays at once for our recent Female Firsts season was an absolute nightmare of a task, and not one I’d volunteer for again any time soon. You may have wondered why those two plays were a little shorter than our usual fare, it’s because there was literally no more time to add any more pages.

TARO, 2019. Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

In recent years Arrows have won critical acclaim for your portrayals of female figures from history. As an AD what made you decide to take the company in that direction, and why is it important to you to tell these stories?

Yes, I suppose it has worked out like that. For the most part, it was unintentional or based primarily on practical concerns. I always felt actresses got short shrift when it comes to drama, particularly in classical texts, which seems maddening to me, particularly when you consider the ratio of women to men working in the acting field is about ten to one. I’d done Frankenstein and Dracula, two novels largely about men, or where the women were sidelined to supporting roles, and whilst I did what I could to minimise that – making Renfield and De Lacey female or giving Mina, Elizabeth and Lucy a bit more agency, etc – I thought it was time to even the balance and make a season of shows that had female characters as the central focus.

Because whilst I appreciate those productions which take something like Richard II or Henry V and turn it all female – those sort of things just always seem like experiments to me, and always jar a little. Gender is wound into the writing for me, King Lear and Prospero react like fathers with daughters, not mothers with sons, Benedick and Mercutio’s immaturity seems inherently male, as does Othello’s jealousy, and Lord of the Flies is a depiction of what happens to a group of boys, not girls. Changing the gender would change the characters, and most likely alter the plotlines – if a plane of school girls crashed on an island and were left for an extended period of time unsupervised, of course there would be conflict and shocking behaviour and extreme actions, but not in the same way that it occurs with the boys in the novel. So I preferred to write all new original roles that favoured female casting. Sophie Scholl, Anne Lister and Gerda Taro took centre stage, and in the case of the latter, we even divided the roles between younger and older, present and past, to further the opportunities for casting more women, giving more opportunities.

I don’t necessarily see the fact that these heroines were female as a reason to tell their stories, in and of itself. I chose to tell these stories because they’re great stories. If they happen to be about women, then great, but that in and of itself isn’t a validation of their need to be told.  Certainly in terms of their time periods (1942, 1810 and 1935), the fact that the protagonists were female and trying to do something not readily expected of them raises the conflict and drama of the narratives, but what interested me more about Scholl, Lister and Taro was their strengths, their mistakes, their vulnerability, their stubbornness, their kindness, their sense of self, their passion, their ambitions, their cruelty, their moments of realisation. That’s the reason I told their stories.

Check back soon to hear more from Ross about what the future has in store for Arrows & Traps… but in the meantime, tickets are on sale now for One Giant Leap (2nd-27th July) and The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde (from 3rd September – check the website for full dates and venues).

Review: Precious Little at Brockley Jack Theatre

A short play with a lot to talk about, Madeleine George’s Precious Little places language and communication under the microscope. Brodie (Jenny Delisle) is a linguistics researcher who’s expecting her first child, but when the amniocentesis test reveals there might be a problem, she’s faced with a difficult choice. Her much younger girlfriend Dre (Jessica Kinsey) – who can’t understand why Brodie, now 42, wants a baby in the first place – offers little comfort, so Brodie looks for answers from two unlikely sources: Cleva, an elderly research subject whose language is on the verge of dying out, and the Ape, a famous talking gorilla at the local zoo (both Deborah Maclaren).

Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes

The various elements of the story at first don’t seem to quite knit together and the end comes as a bit of a surprise, offering the audience little in the way of closure. But when you look back on it, language is the constant in every encounter within the play – whether it’s the gabbling tourists from whom 100 words carry less value than the Ape’s dignified silence, or the unfortunate choice of language from Brodie’s well-meaning doctor, which immediately put her on the defensive. Cleva’s revival of a language she hasn’t spoken for years brings back memories of another life, to the alarm of her overprotective daughter, and Brodie’s choice boils down to a simple question: can she live with a child who might not have the ability to communicate?

Under the direction of Kate Bannister, all three actors give excellent performances. As Brodie, Jenny Delisle succeeds in the difficult job of turning a woman who often seems cold, scientific and verging on arrogant into a sympathetic character whose dilemma the audience can sympathise with. Jessica Kinsey gives a masterclass in multi-roling, playing no less than five characters (many more if you count each of the zoogoers separately), each of them with a lot of lines – if not always a huge amount to say. This abundance of roles means she’s on stage for pretty much the whole play, with little time for significant costume changes, and yet every character she plays is completely distinct from the rest. Deborah Maclaren, in contrast, has relatively few lines, but makes every single one of them count. As the Ape she gives a meticulously observed physical performance; it really is like watching a gorilla at the zoo. Hearing her inner monologue means we can’t help but feel sympathy for this dignified, intelligent creature who’s expected to perform day in day out for the entertainment of impatient and insensitive humans.

Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes

The production’s set and lighting design (Karl Swinyard and Ben Jacobs) skilfully contrast the clinical surroundings of Brodie’s office and various medical appointments with the artificial natural environment of the Ape’s zoo enclosure. Despite frequently involving a change of costume and setting the scene changes never feel overly long, due largely to Julian Starr’s increasingly urgent music, which helps maintain the pace and atmosphere of the production throughout.

At one point in the play, Brodie is offended when her doctor tactlessly suggests that linguistics isn’t a science – but it’s an easy mistake to make. We don’t tend to give the words we use every day as much thought as we should, and this play highlights how crucial language is not only in our interactions but also in our identities. It may be called Precious Little, but this thought-provoking play has plenty to say.

Precious Little is at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 15th June.

Review: Queen of the Mist at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

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.

Queen of the Mist at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre
Photo credit: Stephen James Russell @SpeedyJR

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.

Queen of the Mist at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre
Stephen James Russell @SpeedyJR

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… 😉