“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.
“this play, written for a stonking all-female cast, perhaps needed a bit more darkness, a bit more bite”
This all-female cast and crew production is fun, dynamic and crowd-pleasing. A strong cast of four, directed by Charlotte Everest, brought Robert Luxford’s sometimes witty, energetic script to life, making some bold and engaging staging and performance choices. But a truncated flow in stage action and occasionally restrictive episodic structure mean it sacrifices humorous depth for giggling shallows.
Natalya Wolter-Ferguson, Cecile Sinclair and Rebecca Wilson are a terrific trio: perfectly balanced, wonderfully varied and each with their own outrageous showcase moment, they were a joy to watch. I found their commitment and passion exciting, and their clear support of one another inspiring. All embraced the challenges which their parts required, and the result was three female performers being free, uninhibited and brave onstage. Gillian Broderick joins the action later, but her reputation precedes her as the infamous Mother Superior, who turns out not to be so superior after all. Broderick adds a new flavour to the plot, and she played the inscrutable, but ultimately liberally persuadable, nun with growing conviction and nuance as the play progressed. The cast enjoyed themselves, which was reflected back at them in the auditorium.
Luxford’s script has clear intentions, which you can read immediately in the show’s aesthetic, and the performers’ characterisation: camp, mellow shock, sex and silliness – all habit-forming stuff. But each scene is so contained that the narrative never quite moved beyond stereotype. I was particularly frustrated by Mother Superior’s rousing speech about the church’s misogyny, in which the first example she used was that make-up is perceived as problematic. This dissection never quite unravelled and complexified to such an extent that the little shocks of the show amounted to the feeling of anything beyond being tickled. Being tickled is fine, but this play, written for a stonking all-female cast, perhaps needed a bit more darkness, a bit more bite.
Tara Usher’s set design is excellent. It perfectly frames, frills and sasses up the Tristan Bates space, with a gloriously kitsch combo of electric neon, which accents model angel wings and a garish central cross, and baby pink and blue velvet bedsheets, adorned with simpering Christs. It creates the perfect realm for playful debauchery, and Everest’s direction comes to its own when she incorporates the bed as the centrepiece of the Sisters’ lusty confusion. Sally McCulloch’s lighting design, using torches and creating different moods and textures with isolated neon lights, is inventive and thoughtful. However, much as I thought the sound choices were second to nun (not a typo; what a playlist), a couple of the tracks could have been cut, to let the dialogue and performances speak. Recorded voices illuminating context and offering different perspectives on nuns within the church were a nice touch, but used a little too frequently: pairing them with blackouts at points furthered the script’s feeling of incompleteness.
Nuns was met with a warm audience reception. The production team have made a production which is worth seeing, for its creative vivacity and committed performances.