“its rushed retelling of Taylor’s ambitious stunt does not make the splash that it perhaps intends”
On 24th October 1901, Annie Edson Taylor, a 63-year-old woman from Auburn, New York, became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive. Down on her luck, Edson had hoped that achieving such a feat would make her rich and famous, but soon discovers the fickle nature of showbusiness.
Dominic O’Hanlon’s adaption of Michael John LaChiusa’s musical Queen of the Mist follows Taylor’s (Trudi Camilleri) incredible story from rags to riches to, well, rags as she employs the smooth-talking drunkard Frank Russell (Will Arundell) to be her manager and shuns the concerns of her conservative sister Jane (Emily Juler). The cast is completed by four supporting actors who do well to play several different roles from shopkeepers to presidential assassin Leon Czolgosz.
Camilleri does well to lead the show and spends little time offstage. The boisterous and selfish character of Taylor makes her hard to sympathise with, but Camilleri is successful in getting the audience on her side in more tender moments. The chemistry between her and Arundell is also apparent, and their last scene together is incredibly touching.
The cast make excellent use of the small stage, effortlessly transitioning between scenes set at the Falls to those in domestic spaces. The use of chairs, boxes and raised platforms (Tara Usher) effectively transforms the stage, and a brief bout of shadow puppetry in the first half is an amusing way of adding variety to the musical’s visuals. The small band of keys, strings, bass and woodwind instruments led by musical director Jordan Li-Smith sit prominently on tiered platforms to the right of the actors, but they do not detract from the action. Coloured lighting is used well to reflect and communicate the mood on stage and is impressively well-timed with the music.
The musical accompaniment deserves special commendation and is particularly atmospheric when Taylor plunges over the Falls. The music is strong in less dramatic moments too, with light flute and heavy brass cleverly accompanying different people as they walk and talk on stage.
The entire cast has strong vocals and Camilleri impressively navigates several successive solos. The strongest songs are The Fall (Act Two finale) and There Is Greatness In Me, the latter of which is threaded throughout the show which makes for nice continuity. Many of the songs are however lacklustre and the desire to cram in as many as possible often prevents both plot and character development.
The plot at times seems rushed and key relationships like that between Taylor and Russell are not given proper attention and make it unclear to the audience what to expect from their next interaction. The first half has a wonderfully dramatic climax but speeding through Taylor’s story to make this the case means that the second half unfortunately lacks much plot at all.
Queen of the Mist shines an important spotlight on a forgotten tale of greatness, but its rushed retelling of Taylor’s ambitious stunt does not make the splash that it perhaps intends.
“all credit must be given to Dom O’Hanlon and company for this spirited revival”
Written in 1997, and revived on Broadway in 2014, Sideshow is a relatively new musical. The score still feels fresh and demands attention, and the story’s overarching themes are both resonant and timely. The show tells the tale of the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, real women who were born in Brighton and went on to become two of the most well-known and well-paid performers in America during the 20s and 30s. We follow their lives from their early sideshow days to the poignant moment in which they are poised to star in a Hollywood movie, and are asked to think about what it means to be different, and to reflect on the struggle for individual agency and fulfilment.
The show’s director, Dom O’Hanlon, writes that the company was ‘drawn to the Bussey Building and its alternative feel’, and it’s true that walking through the bunting-bedecked Bussey tunnel, and climbing the concrete stairs from the yard, festooned with fairy lights, couldn’t be a more perfect introduction to the sideshow spirit. Roberta Volpe’s evocative set and Adrian Jeakins’ atmospheric sound design continue the illusion; so much so that we really seem to be in the big top for the duration. Lemington Ridley’s superb costume design is also perfectly pitched throughout, and contributes enormously to our immersion in the Side Show world.
Come Look at the Freaks, the powerful opening number, sets the tone for much of the work to come. The orchestra is tight and punchy, and the ensemble singing is clear and full of theatrical energy. John Reddel’s able musical direction ensures that these qualities remain throughout, and the company work is always strong enough to loft the ball back into the air on the occasions when some of the individual performances are lacking. For the most part, Katie Beudert (Daisy) and Lauren Edwards (Violet) are terrific, and carry the story with great charisma. Beudert perfectly captures Daisy’s starry-eyed effervescence, and, in contrast, Edwards has a purity of vocal quality and control which illuminates Violet’s quieter personality. Matthew James Nicholas gives a stand-out performance as Terry Connor, and moves adroitly from boyish charm in the first Act to the passionate intensity of Private Conversation in the second. There is no doubt that he has a serious Musical Theatre career ahead. Alexander Bellinfantie (Jake) is in fine voice for The Devil You Know – Act 1’s showstopper – but, frustratingly, seems physically uncomfortable on stage throughout, and Barry O’ Reilly’s Buddy, although performed with a lot of gusto, never achieves true fullness of character. Special mention though should go to both Olga-Marie Pratt and Aloña Walsh for their truthful performances in the ensemble.
Side Show is an intriguing piece, and it is definitely refreshing to see a musical which challenges the centrality of the ubiquitous boy meets girl relationship. It is not without its flaws however; chief among them an emotionally and narratively unsatisfying ending. Pint of Wine’s production does justice to Bill Russell’s book and to the music of Henry Krieger, but it too is flawed. The choreography seems too pedestrian for the subject, and the production loses its sharpness during the dance numbers. In addition, the scene transitions involving the full company need tightening. That said, all credit must be given to Dom O’Hanlon and company for this spirited revival.