Queen of the Mist – book & music by Michael John LaChiusa. The Brockley Jack Studio, London SE4. 4****. William Russell

Words and Music by John LaChiusa.
The Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, 410 Brockley Road, London SE4 2JH to 27 April 2019.
Tues-Say 7.30pm.
Runs 2hr 30 mins One interval.
TICKETS: 0333 666 3366
Review: William Russell 11 April.
A show that takes a leap of faith and survives
Annie Edson Taylor at the age of 63 on 24 October 1901 became the first person to go over the Niagra Falls in a barrel and survive. She was a widow struggling to make ends meet in odd jobs teaching private pupils and the like who had a brainwave – she would go over the falls in a barrel, survive, and achieve fame and fortune. Something nobody had ever done. She achieved the fame – for a while – but not the latter. Her manager Frank M Russell (no relation) was a rogue who ran away the cash and her barrel. After years of futile attempts to get her money back and a life spent selling postcards of her feat and posing for photographs with tourists at the falls she died in 1921 in poverty in the Niagara County infirmary aged 82. In a way the show is not a barrel of laughs.
La Chuisa has come up with a first rate score and created a series of melodious arias for the indomitable Annie sung with suitable brio by Trudi Camilleri. It is a demanding role and the opera trained Ms Camilleri rises to the vocal demands with ease, backed by a first rate cast playing the people she encounters on her journey to fame and obscurity. There is also a fine five piece orchestra under Jordan Li-Smith to do justice to the score. While Will Arundell as the unscrupulous Russell, who has an equally fine voice, matches Camilleri’s Annie perfectly.
Director Dom O’Hanlon has fitted what really is a quart production on to a pint pot stage most resourcefully. The show has inbuilt problems but they are mostly overcome. One is that Annie’s feat cannot be shown and another is the decline in Act Two from the amazingly modern for her time woman striving to overcome the obstacles society places in her way into one defeated by life is something of a downer. At the end it all seems to become Annie’s dreams about death and ghosts from the past surfacing so that a certain amount of confusion reigns in story telling terms. As so often with musicals it is the book that is what needs work rather than the score.
In today’s media world Annie might well have become a TV personality and done very well by building on that one thing, but back then she appears never to have managed to tell the world what it was like being inside the barrel hurtling to what should have been death so that the media fame she craved somehow never quite materialised. Newspapers lost interest in her. But LaChuisa’s turn of the century pastiche score is full of very good things and for once this is a production with a cast who can all sing – not the usual actors who think they can. The story has some other problems – Annie touring the sticks as a support act to Carrie Nation, a temperance campaigner who attacked speakeasies with a hatchet, makes little sense to audiences here who have never heard of Nation is one of them, as is an assassination attempt on President McKinlay. And there is also that decline to poverty and death to cope with.
But that said the performances are to relish – Emma Ralston does a vicious Carrie, Emily Juler is terrific as married conventional sister Jane and amazing as the fake drunken “Annie” used by Russell after he has split with the real Annie, while Tom Blackmore, Conor McFarlane and Andrew Carter deliver the men in her life with great style. This very good Pint of Wine production cries out for a larger venue and has the cast with personality and voice to fill one.
Annie Edson Taylor: Trudi Camilleri.
Frank Russell: Will Arundel.
Jane/The Blonde: Emily Juler.
Carrie Nation/Riverboy: Emma Ralston.
Young Soldier/Barker: Tom Blackmore.
Man with had wrapped in a handkerchief: Conor McFarlane.
New Manager/ River Man: Andrew Carter.

Director: Dom O’Hanlon.
Musical Director: Jordan Li-Smith.
Set & Costume Design: Tara Usher.
Lighting Design: Bethany Gupwell.
Sound Design: Adrian Jenkins.
Production photography: Stephen Russell.

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