Sometimes, desperate times call for desperate measures, and for Annie Edson Taylor (1838-1921) (Trudi Camilleri), who was widowed at a fairly young age, she worked as what would probably be called a self-employed dance teacher these days. Thus, there was no pension to speak of (the Social Security Act in the United States didn’t come about until 1935), and with her income dwindling because of a lack of students, she is about to be turfed out of her rented accommodation for being in rent arrears. But, she says, she is an Episcopalian with a standard of living to maintain – I couldn’t work out how the two are possibly mutually exclusive, except that perhaps in Taylor’s own mind High Church equals high maintenance. I still have no idea how or why that would be the case, but she, or at least the musical Queen of the Mist’s interpretation of her, insists it is.
Her sister Jane (Emily Juler) takes her in for a while, but it doesn’t work out, mostly because of Taylor’s borderline Thatcherite uncompromising ways, which also lead her to fall out with a number of managers after she dispensed with the services of her first one, Frank Russell (Will Arundell), who at least agreed to take on the challenge of managing the press and publicity opportunities that come with what Taylor decides to do: quite literally, go over Niagara Falls in a custom-built barrel. That is the show’s critical incident, and fortunately or unfortunately, it takes the entire first half for the show to get to that point, and the entire second half to examine the outcome and consequences of the event. Taylor’s motives are, truth be told, financial, and she had hopes of capitalising on her experience by selling related merchandise and going on tour (amongst other things).
As it is reasonably well documented that Taylor survived, I trust it is not much of a spoiler, if one at all, to say she does so in the musical, which if anything justifies having a second half – just about. I couldn’t’ help wondering if this actually might work better as a play than a musical, with all the various encounters and obstacles that Taylor faces both before and after the big event. It tries, being a musical, on ending on as ‘happy’ a note as it reasonably can, but Taylor ultimately failed to secure the fame and fortune she wanted to secure her financial future in her later years.
That said, Camilleri has a wonderful singing voice in the lead role of Annie Edson Taylor. A brief but nonetheless memorable barbershop trio moment has Tom Blackmore, Conor McFarlane and Andrew Carter harmonising about Taylor. In the relatively small performance space, the eight-piece band, conducted ably by Jordan Li-Smith, take up possibly a third of the stage, visible and in period costume. It would be a bit of a stretch to say that’s worth going to see in itself (unless, of course, one really, really has a particularly keen interest in seeing an on-stage band), but it is a testament to the production that they there are up to seven cast members on stage as well, and yet the set never looks overcrowded. It helps, perhaps, that there isn’t much in the way of dancing and/or highly energetic movements throughout the evening as a whole.
The set is well constructed, which is about all I can say about it without giving too much away. The musical seems to subtly suggest that the pursuit of celebrity status can be at a significant cost both financially and psychologically. There could have been more variation in the musical numbers themselves, though this is fundamentally no fault of this production. Emma Ralston puts in a convincing role as Carrie Nation, a crusading moralist and religious fundamentalist, while Conor McFarlane’s ‘Man with hand wrapped in a handkerchief’ (as the character is named in the programme) provided some comic relief in an otherwise very serious musical. This is an intriguing and engaging production, which, although imperfect, barrels along quite nicely at the end of the day.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Queen of the Mist is based on the astounding and outrageous true story of Anna Edson Taylor, who in 1901 on her 63rd birthday set out to be the first person to survive a trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel of her own design.
This story explores the fickle world of celebrity and sensationalism at the turn of the century with an unconventional heroine determined not to live an ordinary life. With a soaring score that incorporates turn of the century themes with LaChiusa’s insightful and engaging style, this award-winning musical is the story of how one woman risked death so that she could live.
Queen of the Mist
Words and Music by Michael John LaChiusa
Producer | Blake Klein
Director | Dom O’Hanlon
Musical Director | Jordan Li-Smith
Assistant Musical Director | Connor Fogel
Set & Costume Design |Tara Usher
Lighting Design | Bethany Gupwell
Costume Realisation | Lemington Ridley
Sound Design | Adrian Jeakins
Publicity Design | Daniel Penfold
Assistant Producer & Stage Management | Daniel Gosselin
Presented by arrangement with R & H Theatricals Europe.
The Cast | Trudi Camilleri as Anna Edson Taylor, with Will Arundell, Emily Juler, Emma Ralston, Tom Blackmore, Conor McFarlane and Andrew Carter.
Venue: Brockley Jack Studio Theatre
410 Brockley Road, London, SE4 2DH
Tuesday 9 – Saturday 27 April 2019
Performances at 7.30pm (No performances Monday,