Queen of the Mist
Words & Music by Michael John LaChiusa.
Charing Cross Theatre, The Arches, Villiers Street, London WC2N 6NL to 5 October 2019.
Mon – Sat 7.30pm Mat Wed 2.30pm Sat 3.00pm.
Runs 2hr 15 mins One interval.
TICKETS: 08444 930 650
Review: William Russell 19 August.
By far the best sung musical in London this production of Michael John LaChiusa.s musical began life at the Brockley Jack Studio, one of the best fringe theatres in town. I saw it there, gave it four stars, and said that the show really needed more room to breathe. The Jack is a 50 seater, the orchestra and cast completely filled the stage which faced the audience. It now gets it. The Charing Cross Theatre has a square acting area with the audience in banked seats at opposite sides, not quite the usual traverse arrangement as that tends to provide a kind of corridor with the two audiences facing one another so that they share what is going on before them. The Charing Cross arrangement means that they are too far apart for this. But more of that later.
Anna Edson Taylor,played and sung brilliantly by Trudi Camilleri, was the only person to have gone over the Niagara Falls in a barrel and survived. She was 63 at the time, it was her birthday and she claimed to be the Queen of the Mist, a name still used today on one of the boats at the Falls. She was a widow who eked a precarious living as a teacher, moving from town to town leaving unpaid rent and debts behind. One day she had her big idea. She would go over the Falls in a barrel. It was the age of daredevils attempting to do so and of the likes of Houdini walking over them on the tightrope. But Anna was not up to what followed. Her celebrity was short lived, she refused to let her rogue of a manager send her on the vaudeville circuit, and she could never explain what it had been like going over the Falls. Her manager, Frank M Russell, played to the hilt by Will Arundell, cheated her, stole the barrel and took a fake Anna on tour. She ended up selling postcards of herself by the falls and died in penury aged 82. Today she would probably be on chat shows, reality show and Strictly.
Camilleri creates a tough, resilient little woman convinced that she has done something wonderful for womankind but unable to exploit the opportunities open to her through her innate stubborn nature. She also sings and sings again, carrying the weight of the fine ballads LaChiusa has composed. It is a melodious score, one of the most interesting in ages.She also gets fine support from the other five members of the cast, each of whom gets a chance to shine and takes it with both hands. Emily Juler, who plays her devoted sister has a stand out moment as the fake Anna, and Emma Ralston, who plays lots of female roles gets her chance playing Carrie Nation, a conceited temperance campaigner Anna ends up sharing a platform with. But the same goes for the men. The evening belongs to Camilleri, but also to everyone else.
The book may not be all sunshine and spangles, but this is a musical with a brain and There is, however, a problem. At the Jack the cast sang to the audience. Here there are two audiences and time and again Anna, who carries the weight of the songs, is standing with her back to one audience while singing at length to the other one.
Once is troubling, but repeatedly looking at her back gets really annoying. Partly it is because of the shape of the acting area distances the two audiences so there is no shared complicity between the two as happens in the more common oblong traverse. Sound is not the problem – the sound designer Adrian Jeakins has done a fine job, everything comes over crystal clear and he and musical director Connor Fogel have kept the balance between voice and accompaniment perfectly. But the auditorium is tricky and its pitfalls have not been recognised. On top of this, just as one is starting to feel really annoyed, at the end of Act One Anna is stripped of her dress and left in her voluminous underclothes singing to Audience A. In Audience B where I was sitting you see her back and stuffed into her girdle are the electronic bits and pieces necessary for miked shows. It ends with a blackout meant to leave us waiting for what comes next as she has yet to go over the Falls. But as Camilleri disappears into the darkness two little green lights wink away, a kind of tailgate warning, and it is just risible.
The show really deserves that fifth star but director Dom O’Hanlon, who coped so well with far greater limitations at the Jack, while handling much of it with skill, has not got to grips with this theatre’s limitations – it might have looked fine from wherever he sat, which was probably in Audience A, when putting it together. But from the viewpoint of Audience B things go awry. That said this is a strictly limited seven week season and Queen of the Mist is a show not to miss.
Anna Edson Taylor: Trudi Camilleri.
Frank Russell: Will Arundell.
Jane/Soprano: Emily Juler.
Carrie Nation/Alto: Emma Ralston.
Young Soldier/Tenor: Tom Blackmore.
Man with hand wrapped in handkerchief/Baritone: Conor Mcfarlane.
New Manager/ Bass: Andrew Carter.
Director: Dom O’Hanlon.
Musical Director: Connor Fogel.
Sound Designer: Adrian Jeakins.
Set & Costume Design: Tara Usher.
Costume Design: Lwmnington Ridley.
Lighting Design: Bethany Gupwell.
Production photography. Stephen Russell.