Pros: Bright songs, sharp choreography and a strong cast make the show work better than the subject matter might suggest.
Cons: A depressing storyline that shows how cruel people can be when confronted with someone who is different.
Cowboys serenading pretty girls in gingham dresses always seemed to be the storyline when I watched musical theatre as a callow youth. I’ve since learnt that the genre can deal with anything from South American dictators to people eating plants. Even so, I felt slightly uneasy about Side Show, a musical based on real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. The story traces their journey from circus sideshow through to mainstream theatre and their appearance in Tod Browning’s infamous 1932 film Freaks. With music by Dreamgirls co-creator Henry Krieger and a stalwart cast headed by Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford, it had to be good, didn’t it?
And yes, overall, it is very good; the consistently excellent Southwark Playhouse is once again host to a musical destined to grow on audiences. It begins with the raucously loud Come Look at the Freaks as the tattooed girl, bearded lady, lizard man and human pincushion do their turns before Daisy and Violet, the stars of the show, take their bow. Frailties of the human condition and desire for normality are well-observed in Like Everyone Else and Typical Girls Next Door. The ringmaster, Sir, played by the commanding Chris Howell, wrestles for control of the girls with Buddy and Terry who resolve to free them from the glorified zoo. But are the vaudeville impresarios any less manipulative than Sir in their quest to make a buck? Act I concludes with the girls saying farewell to the sideshow for a crack as conventional performers. Act II begins with rehearsals for their new show and the well-choreographed Stuck with You and the uncomfortable — but funny — One Plus One Equals Three. The story begs for a happy ending, but there are surprising turns before it reaches its conclusion.
Although the show is enjoyable for the most part, some aspects continued to niggle me. The nature of the characters seems to disturb the flow of performance. For example some members of the cast double up in other roles, and it takes a while for them to lose their make-up. I can only imagine how difficult costume changes must be, but I still couldn’t get my head around the bearded lady playing an attorney with her namesake still attached! Similarly, Daisy and Violet are stitched together at the hip, and when seated side-on to the stage you miss one while the other sings or speaks.
Those blips aside, Side Show is staged well and has high production values. It cannot disguise the underlying sadness of the subject matter — human beings struck by deformity who long for acceptance but are reduced to objects of ridicule just to get by — but a solid score and a talented cast bring it home.
Director: Hannah Chissick
Author: Bill Russell
Composer: Henry Krieger
Producer: Paul Taylor-Mills
Musical Director: Jo Cichonska
Choreographer: Matthew Cole
Box Office: 020 7407 0234
Booking link: http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/side-show
Booking until: 3 December 2016