QUEEN OF THE MIST Charing Cross Theatre, London
Trudi Camilleri as Anna Edson Taylor: photograph Stephen Russell

I must confess that prior to my visit to London's Charing Cross Theatre, I knew nothing of Anna Edson Taylor who in 1901, on her 63rd birthday, set out to be the first person to survive a trip over Niagra Falls in a barrel of her own design, named Queen of the Mist; a daring and death defying feat in which she incurred only a few minor scratches and a bruised forehead. And yet she failed to draw long term recognition, interest or adoration from the public.

Words and lyrics by Michael LaChiusa (five time Tony Award nominated Composer, Lyricist and Librettist) Queen Of The Mist  offers an homage to and explores the story of the phenomenon that was Taylor. Having received critical acclaim earlier this year when it played its European premiere at the Brockley Jack Studio in London, it is now making its appearance at this delightful theatre, tucked beneath the arches at London's embankment.

So what motivated Taylor? It seems that despite her rather uneventful life as a teacher and now widowed she was looking for fulfillment, fame and fortune. Taylor was desperate to avoid the Poorhouse and to gain sufficient 'Greens' (dollars) to maintain her in her dotage.Yet this evaded her and she died penniless and alone. She was unable to maintain public interest in her story and simply did not own the personality demanded by them to endear her as a national treasure. Such was her disappointment in their reaction and her own frustration that all relationships were systematically destroyed, including that with her own sister, her manager and the press.

Ostensibly a story about Anna Edson Taylor, there are interwoven themes that raise their head. When desirous of fame and fortune, what might we do? Accused (unfairly) by Carrie Nation, a radical member of the Temperance Movement, of pulling a stunt and thereby deserving of no respect, her 'deed' achieved quite the opposite to her own objectives. Once fame is achieved, even momentarily, how may it be sustained? How might the fickleness of the public, greedy for sensationalism rather than integrity, be held before they move on to the next news breaking story? Hopes and dreams dissipate and disappointment was her reward. Only to repeat what I said earlier: how many people today recognise her name? 

It is such a delight to experience the versatility and flexibility of a small theatre, shown here where the traverse staging enabled the tiered audience on both sides to share the intimacy of the performance. A clever design (Tara Usher) where props and furniture could be moved with ease to create the separate settings, the space at no time felt cluttered despite its confined size. To begin, centre stage was held by the barrel itself, creating a majestic effect and then subtly moving aside to allow for movement and performance. In side alcoves and on a higher level was the band, led by Connor Fogel. All were in period costume and inclusive to the cast. An essential musical pulse, LaChiusa's exciting score, reminiscent at times of Sondheim, was played entirely to effect. Yes, there were shades of Assassins and Sweeny Todd but it held its own and is a score deserving of its London recording. Each number held its merits but I particularly liked 'There is Greatness In Me' delivered powerfully by Trudi Camilleri as Taylor and 'Charity' with Tom Blackmore, Conor McFarlane and Andrew Carter as panhandlers together with Camilleri.
 
Lighting Designer, Beth Gupwell, offered a subtle shading and, together with the terrific effects and balance of sound (Adrian Jenkins), the terrifying roar of the cascading water of Niagra Falls set the atmosphere. Amusingly the air conditioning offered occasional breezes which made the experience even more realistic and, with a stretch of imagination, transported you to the Falls as one of the spectators.
 
Directed by Dom O'Hanlon and with musical direction by Connor Fogel, Pint of Wine's 7 strong company filled the space with their strong presence. Ensuring that they reached the audience, they moved around the space to face both sides and to share their story. The ensemble, at times playing as a Greek chorus, took us with them on their journey but also played multiple roles to great effect. 
 
Voices, all accomplished, soared , none more so than Camilleri herself. A veritable powerhouse, this small figure grew in stature as she delivered each number and drew us in to her vulnerability. Resolute and immovable, she did not win the hearts of the public of the time but she certainly won ours. Complemented by the company of Will Arundel as her manager, Emily Juler as her caring sister, Emma Ralson as judgmental Carrie Nation, Connor McFarlane as 'man with bandaged hand', Andrew Carter as River Man and Tom Blackmore, playing movingly as the tragic young soldier, there was magic in performance.
 
Anna (Annie) Edson Taylor might have been hiterto unknown but tonight at this intimate theatre, Michael John LaChiusa and Pint Size Theatre Company gave testament to this determined woman and put her on a much deserved pedestal. Queen Of The Mist is an achingly haunting story of a ferociously determined individual who, through the skilful direction of Dom O'Hanlon, achieved greatness tonight.

Photograph Stephen Russell

Listings

Dates: 15 August - 5 October 2019: 
Evenings: Mon-Sat 7.30 pm; matinees Wed 2.30 pm and Sat 3.00 pm
Running time 2 hours 15 minutes including a short interval
Tickets   £10 - £32, concessions students/unwaged/over 60s
Box office 08444 930 650 (£3 levy on phone and internet orders)
 
https://charingcrosstheatre.co.uk/theatre/queen-of-the-mist