BWW Review: QUEEN OF THE MIST, Brockley Jack Studio Theatre
Anna Edson Taylor believes she is destined for greatness, but, now in her 60s, it seems unlikely. Hounded by her creditors, she goes from Midwest city to Midwest city at the turn of the 20th century, hawking her teaching skills as others would snake oil. With little to lose, she comes up with the idea of selling her body - not for sexual purposes, but as the ballast in a barrel sent over Niagara Falls, the public, then as now, always hungry for a freakshow spiced with near suicidal bravery.
And genuinely dangerous it was (and is). The Falls themselves aren't quite as spectacular up close as they appear in pictures (or refracted through the media myth-machine that drives tourism), but the drop is not the killer. The real death-defying comes with the escape from the whirlpools and eddies that can trap a person behind the water curtain until they suffocate, the water drowning the oxygen out of the air.
The first to try the stunt, Mrs Edson Taylor (a widow) had luck on her side and escaped with but a graze to her head, incurred on her release from the barrel. Other scars, new and old, were to take rather longer to heal, if at all.
Dom O'Hanlon has brought Michael John LaChiusa's musical about the celebrated daredevil (celebrated on the tacky US side of the border anyway) to the UK for the first time and it's a strange beast indeed. One catches elements of the gothic dystopia one finds in Sweeney Todd, of the impending doom in The Woman in White, but it's perhaps closest to Adam Guettel's extraordinary masterpiece Floyd Collins (reviewed here).
Like that musical, the book is flawed but never less than interesting, the music swoops and soars but leaves you few toe-tappers to hum on the bus home and the message is somewhat bleak.
For, as it was for Collins, trapped underground as a minor industry convenes above to exploit his trauma, America is presented as a vindictive child, short in both attention span and compassion, careless of the human being caught up in the razzmatazz.
That Mrs Edson Taylor gets ripped off by a succession of shyster managers is predictable, but it's her heartbreaking inability to articulate an answer to the relentless question "How did it feel to go over The Falls?" that really sends her to the poorhouse. The public, denied their pound of actual flesh, must have their psychological one - or they'll simply move on to the next sideshow. Then as now...
The music is the real star of the show, played by a splendid small orchestra under the direction of Jordan Li-Smith who, I am pleased and delighted to report, has balanced instruments and voices beautifully for clarity. Tara Usher's set and costumes are equally good, the production values as high as I have known them at this venue.
Early in the run, there's a little stiffness still evident in the cast but that will pass with time. Trudi Camilleri is a formidable presence as Mrs Edson Taylor, exploitative and exploited, brave and foolish, ultimately tragic in a tragically personal way. She sings with great power, but never less than clearly and is matched by consistently strong vocals from everyone on stage.
She gets fine support from a cast who play multiple roles, the standouts being Will Arundell's seedy manager, Frank Russell, and Tom Blackmore's young soldier, meeting his heroine before being shipped to the Western Front. Another bloody waste.
This award-winning show opened off-Broadway in 2011 and, needless to say, much has happened since then, so Act Two's moral may feel a little more overplayed now than it did in those more innocent times. Nevertheless, it is good to see and hear this curio of a musical, one ideally suited to an intimate space that requires little imagination to conceive of as the barrel that offered Mrs Edson Taylor the greatness she craved, but that she never assumed. At least not in her lifetime.
But now she's up there with Eva Peron and Maria von Trapp - so who won in the long run?
Photo Stephen James Russell @SpeedyJR