Side Show continues at Southwark Playhouse, London until 3 December.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
Broadway has twice given Side Show the thumbs-down – it lasted only 91 performances in 1997 and even fewer when reimagined and darkened in 2014 – but this curio of a musical, loosely based on fact, makes a stunning British debut on the London Fringe and is well worth a visit.
This is the 2014 version, with Bill Russell’s book augmented by that show’s director Bill Condon, and vibrant new songs added to the pallid original. New York may not have loved it but this Southwark production hits you right between the eyes straight away, both visually and musically.
The intoxicating opening number ‘Come Look at the Freaks’ invites us to gawp guiltily at a variety of nature’s ‘mistakes’ – Natasha Lawes, in charge of prosthetics and make-up, certainly earns her corn – in a tawdry sideshow run by Chris Howell’s brutal ‘ringmaster’.
Then the headline act, the conjoined, identical Hilton twins, introduce themselves with ‘I’m Daisy. I’m Violet’ before telling us they’re ‘Like Everyone Else’ with the same needs and feelings, but each very different in personality.
How the Hilton sisters, born to an unwed Brighton barmaid, were taken to the States in the 1920s and exploited first in freak shows, then in vaudeville – in real life, they once tap-danced in a troupe with Bob Hope – before briefly making it to Hollywood is a fascinating, disturbing tale.
Real-life figures escapologist Harry Houdini and Tod Browning, who directed the chilling 1932 movie Freaks, which featured the twins among various midgets, bearded ladies and circus strongmen, make appearances in the show to add authenticity to Russell’s book.
But the stars are the wonderful Louise Dearman, as brazen spotlight seeker Daisy, and Laura Pitt-Pulford, as introverted, homely Violet, desperate to find love and settle down, dressed in a variety of gorgeous matching outfits (by designer takis) and singing up a storm together.
Their plaintive ‘Who Will Love Me As I Am?’ brings the superior Act I to a thrilling climax and their closing duet ‘I Will Never Leave You’ is another cracker in a show that’s not short of good music (by Dreamgirls composer Henry Krieger).
At least three other songs are worthy of mention, two of them ‘The Devil You Know’ and ‘You Should Be Loved’ chiefly because of the resonant richness of Jay Marsh’s bass as Jake, the girls’ protector who finally gives voice to a long-held secret passion for Violet but is rejected.
The third is the clever ‘One Plus One Equals Three’, with Daisy, Violet and their suitors Buddy and Terry (Dominic Hodson and Haydn Oakley, both excellent) in a sequence that recalls Sondheim’s Follies in its use of vaudeville numbers as commentary on the characters’’ real lives.
Under Hannah Chissick’s inspired direction, this is a very different night at the theatre and it’s easy to see why. With its talk of surgically separating the twins and its concentration on the grim and grotesque, it might not appeal to Broadway tourists but it deserves to find an audience here.
If it is flawed as a piece of theatre, it is hard to imagine Side Show being done much better than in this thought-provoking, and at times hypnotically absorbing, evening.
Jo Cichonska and her band of seven provide the music, Matthew Cole the choreography and it would be remiss, in what is a terrific team effort, not to namecheck the so-called freaks (but maybe it is we who are the freaks?).
Genevieve Taylor, Agnes Pure, Kirstie Skivington, Lala Barlow, Nuno Quiemado, Nuwan Hugh Perera, Oliver Marshall and David Muscat are no small part of the story and if, as one or two people said afterwards, some liberties were taken with what twins joined at hip and buttocks and fused at the pelvis can actually do, remember the words ‘theatrical licence’!
Incidentally, in real life, the twins got married to gay men, one for just ten days, and died within days of each other of Hong Kong flu at the age of 60. But we don’t get that far, stopping when Browning signs them up for his film before the world lost interest in their curiosity value.
Just as well because they were dumped in North Carolina by their manager and ended up working in a grocery store. What a life – or should that be ‘pair of lives’?
Tickets for Side Show are available HERE.