Floyd Collins may not have discovered a money-making, subterranean tourist attraction, but he was responsible for changing the face of journalism around the world. Whether that’s a good thing depends on which side of the pothole you’re standing.
The name will mean nothing to us Brits but he’s a legend and folk hero in America, particularly in Kentucky, where his 13-day fight for survival, trapped underground in a tunnel, was overshadowed by the media frenzy it created.
His story is the subject of Tina Landau and Adam Guettel’s bluegrass musical, simply called Floyd Collins, which is now playing – until October 15 – at Wilton’s Music Hall, in East London.
Director Jonathan Butterell has the impossible task of recreating Collins’ predicament while telling the courageous story of his rescue and the publicity circus that saw, at one stage 30,000 people flood to the site to gawp at the scene.
While I admire the attempt, by using industrial scaffolding to build a tunnel system on stage, it really doesn’t work.
On screen there is far more freedom but here, in the confines of a theatre, there’s no feeling of claustrophobia, tension or fear, which the man must have felt while being pinned down in the dark.
Poor Ashley Robinson, playing Collins, spends almost all of the two hour production, standing and static, “trapped” in his tunnel while his family, friends and rescuers, scurry about the stage “above ground.”
In February 1925 Collins went looking for a new cave system. Apparently a lot of Kentuckians did it, god knows why, hoping that a discovery would bring tourists and income to this impoverished part of America.
He thought that he’d found the mother-load, a huge new sand cave 150-feet underground. But as he made his way through a narrow tunnel back up to the surface there was a landslide and he was held firm by a large rock. Knocking his lamp over, all Collins could do was hope and pray someone would come to his rescue.
Robinson, for all his constraints, delivers a remarkable performance as Collins. I’ve no idea how true to life it is but here the explorer is fuelled with optimism and bravado, cracking jokes with his brother Homer (Samuel Thomas) and his chief rescuer, bizarrely, a reporter called Skeets Miller (Daniel Booroff).
Miller, a cub reporter more used to covering sport and the obits for his local newspaper, goes above and beyond the call of duty to get a story. His efforts won him a Pulitzer Prize and the attention of the nation’s press.
As well as squeezing his skinny frame through the tunnel system to reach Collins, he interviewed the man en situ and then syndicated his story across the country.
His reports led to radio stations almost overnight, creating the concept of broadcast news, TV stations followed the event, a Hollywood director wanted the rights, and it became, for two weeks, the most talked about story in America.
It also brought thousands of rubberneckers to the rescue site. Hot dog stands and attractions sprung up. Even Floyd’s own father, Lee, tried to cash in by selling photographs of his son.
As a journalist I have to say that I’m disappointed the UK press doesn’t spawn reporters called Skeets. What a great byline. That aside Booroff makes a convincing hack (circa 1925) with his little notebook and air of naivety.
I found this a far more interesting story. How disasters are covered is controversial. The media, doorstepping the families of those killed or missing, usually brings the contempt of the public but, perversely, that same public crave every detail of human suffering.
Floyd Collins the Musical is far too long with its hero stuck in one place, lacks clear direction, it frequently flags, and its characters are underwritten.
A far better, and more engaging, example of the genre is Chris Urich’s Land of Our Fathers, about a group of trapped Welsh miners.
Here we get to learn little about Floyd or his family. I yearned to know more about his feisty, spirited young sister, Nellie, (West End musical theatre star Rebecca Trehearn who is wasted in this periphery role) and brother Homer.
Sarah Ingram, another West End star, plays the stepmother, Miss Jane, and, again is given little to do. If you’re employing this sort of talent at least give them a decent role.
All eyes are, of course, on Ashley Robinson, and rightly so (well, where else are we to look as he’s stuck centre stage for the duration?). His richly sung folk tunes are full of hope and dreams and it’s a truly heroic portrayal.
You won’t be humming any of the songs on the way home, they’re not that remarkable, but they do capture the atmosphere of a time and place when one man’s plight made history.
Floyd Collins is a brave attempt at something original but it could so easily have been told in about 75 minutes. A good show, thanks to stand out performances by its principals, but not a great show.
Early bluegrass music, a tale of outstanding heroism, and standout performances fails to lift the overlong Floyd Collins, a musical about a US caving disaster.