thu 18/07/2024

Side Show, Southwark Playhouse | reviews, news & interviews

Side Show, Southwark Playhouse

Side Show, Southwark Playhouse

A flawed musical about conjoined twins is elevated by its central pair

Star attraction: Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford's twins, with Dominic Hudson and Nuno Queimado Pamela Raith

Composer Henry Krieger’s highly anticipated Dreamgirls arrives later this month, but first up is the UK premiere of his less well-known but thoroughly likeable Side Show, based on the real story of a pair of conjoined twins who became 1930s American vaudeville stars.

Daisy and Violet Hilton have spent their lives on display, from the abusive midwife who charged punters to peer at them in the back room of a pub to the autocratic guardian who makes them the star attraction in his travelling sideshow. Now, they’re seeking autonomy, but disagree on the form that should take: Daisy wants fame and adventure, but on her terms, while (shrinking) Violet wants domestic bliss and anonymity. Budding romance, along with career opportunities, strains their necessarily close bond. (Pictured below: Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford.)

Side Show, Southwark PlayhouseThere isn’t much more to the story, and the musical suffers from a noticeable lack of dramatic momentum. Bill Russell's book and lyrics repetitively spell out character motivations and themes, along with winking puns – the flashy producer who lures them away from the sideshow is “very well connected”; the girls are “stuck” with each other. The show has been retooled since its first unsuccessful Broadway run in 1997 (though it subsequently flopped again), and it still doesn’t land the supporting subplots, which attempt to show other kinds of difference: race and sexuality.

There are echoes, too, of other, more incisive musicals, which does the show no favours, like the Chicago-esque court as performance number, while the vaudeville setting places it alongside Funny Girl and Gypsy. But if it struggles to stand up in the story department, it can at least boast a gorgeous, lush score, and this intimate production is blessed with an outstanding central duo in Laura Pitt-Pulford and Louise Dearman, providing soaring vocals and exquisite harmonies.

Their emotionally nuanced performances give the piece the universality it strives for, making it a relatable coming-of-age tale – and an empowering one at that. So few musicals feature two meaty central female characters, and if the sisters are still driven largely by romance (and facing one too many mansplaining love songs), their fight for independence and individual identity is cheering. Dearman’s Daisy is open, eager and bold, while Pitt-Pulford’s Violet is sensitive and fearful, eventually growing into a different kind of strength. Theirs is the key relationship, and the most engaging one.

Russell gets the best use out of the vaudeville backdrop in the later stages of the show, as the girls’ more sophisticated understanding of the world is echoed by reality breaking through the twinkling lights and tassels of show business. There’s also an interesting thread about the price of celebrity, and the difficulty of separating that façade from a private life – exacerbated here by the lack of privacy afforded to conjoined twins.

Side Show, Southwark PlayhouseThe ensemble of “freaks” fill in the supporting parts, further eliding reality and performance, and there are good turns in under-developed roles from Dominic Hodson as dancemaster Buddy, Haydn Oakley as deceptive charmer Terry, and Chris Howell (pictured above) as the exploitative, literally moustache-twirling ringmaster. Jay Marsh’s superb rendition of the show’s catchiest number, “Before the Devil You Know”, makes you wish he had far more to do than traipse after the sisters as smitten protector Jake.

Hannah Chissick’s production is efficient and evocative, particularly in the rendition of the twins’ harrowing backstory and a haunting dream sequence. Matthew Cole provides ingenious and frequently witty choreography, and takis's design that shows both the seductive glamour and seediness of this world. Not a classic musical, but this rendition makes a strong case for its open-hearted charms.


If it struggles to stand up in the story department, it can at least boast a gorgeous, lush score


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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