Side Show is a fundamentally flawed musical, but one with which I have great affection. Having flopped twice on Broadway in the last 20 years the show is making its long awaited UK professional premiere at the Southwark Playhouse, the off-West End London venue that continues to attract producers hoping to spin straw into gold in a relatively risk-free commercial environment.
Based on the real life story of the Hilton sisters, British born conjoined twins who became stars of the Orpheum circuit amid the American depression and ended their years working in a grocery shop, Side Show offers a punchy score by Dreamgirls creator Henry Krieger, the king of the act one show stopper and lyrics by Bill Russell that speak in eternal metaphors and could stock the internet with inspirational memes for years to come. It's rags-to-riches-to-rags again narrative is a recognisable trope that isn't sufficiently developed despite its unusual protagonists, and as they're rescued by two smooth-taking talent scouts, the highs never fully reflect the lows in order to paint a composite picture of their life.
For a show that’s main plot point is connection this also becomes its fatal flaw. The London production uses the recently reworked book by Russell and Bill Condon that attempts to address one of the central issues with the show, that being the audience’s own connection to the sisters. A clumsy backstory flashback sequence in the middle of act one aims to catch us up to speed with journey to America, effectively sold into a form of entertainment slavery and exploited by the cruel ‘Sir’ who keeps them as his star attraction at his Texas Side Show. It’s clunky and unremarkable despite the subject matter, and it doesn’t quite have the desired effect of hooking us into their world or condition.
In a break with tradition it is the second act that boasts not only the strongest material but also the emotional weight of the production. As the pair are catapulted out of the frying pan and into the fire, the bright lights of vaudeville begin to fade, and their awkward romantic foursome asks questions that demand difficult answers from all of them. It is this act that offers top drawer musical theatre fare but the problems with the troublesome first have yet to be resolved, and less invested audiences may find that they have already given up.
The material comes to life in Terry’s soliloquy “Private Conversation”, in which the show becomes less literal and manages to open itself up and we see into the character's heads in the simplest and most powerful manner. Some clunky signposting regarding Buddy’s sexual orientation deflates the moment of climax, despite the work of Dominic Hodson to find merit in his situation. There’s excellent support by Haydn Oakley as Terry and Jay Marsh as Jake who both make the most of their faintly drawn characters whilst stepping up to the plate as the piece nears its conclusion - when it's on fire it really is glorious, but there are not enough of these moments for the musical to fully ignite.
Whilst this production does its best to paper over the cracks in the book I found it overly safe and far too literal in terms of telling Daisy and Violet’s remarkable story. Their fellow ‘freaks’ are explored in the boldest of colours – audience imagination is completely abandoned, making it too 'sit back and relax' rather than 'sit up and listen'. Director Hannah Chiswick uses her ensemble far too broadly, there’s little sense of danger or surprise. Rather than work to let the audience find the reflection within the show she literally gives it to them, making what should be a powerful and emotional discovery too much of an easy and enjoyable ride. Too many pastiche vaudeville numbers are over choreographed and busy, the ensemble work flat out in Fosse inspired hats, canes and Stetsons but they cloud the central message and at times muddle the narrative.
The production is blessed however with two of London’s finest musical theatre performers in the central roles who bring the very best out of the material and do full justice to Krieger’s knock out score, all the time remaining utterly truthful to their characters. I’ve never seen both Daisy and Violet so consistently and effectively defined, and Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford provide the beating heart of this gigantic show. Pitt-Pulford, in the meatier of the two roles, has an extraordinary gift at bringing you in only to break your heart the closer you get, matched by Dearman’s fierce drive that at times literally props the pair up against adversity. As they unleash their incredible vocal chords on the show’s two act breaks they together prove why this show continues to command attention in spite of its flaws, making musical theatre magic.
Whether this is enough to fully justify this production is arguable. As delighted as I am to see the musical once again, I had hoped that the environment of the London fringe, away from the bright lights of Broadway would have made for a darker, edgier and altogether more creative approach to a musical that can certainly sustain these demands. The knock out performances are suffocated by a highly literal approach that seems to go against the show’s central message – embrace your uniqueness and don't hide your 'flaws'.
What the Press Said...
"You couldn’t wish for better casting, and if the show still fails to move as it should, the fault lies with a repetitive book, too many songs and the conflict between the subject matter and the Broadway musical."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
External links to full reviews from popular press