Side Show is a terrific musical but one that is difficult to pull off. It requires a Perfect Storm of talent and creativity if the result is going to be something other than nice. Here, despite five very talented leads and a committed ensemble, Side Show never really takes off; it neither thrills nor chills – as it should. Nevertheless, it is a pleasant experience which brings a cult musical to the London stage.
There are powerful and universal themes locked up in the feathers, freakery and follies which are the pulse of Side Show, the 1997 musical by Bill Russell (book and lyrics) and Henry Krieger (score) now playing at the Southwark Playhouse. In 2014, the creatives reworked the show and it is that reworked production, which did not find favour at the Broadway box office, that is being staged in London by Hannah Chissick. Perhaps counter-intuitively, Side Show must be played realistically if the themes are to be unlocked effectively and the musical is to reach its dramatic possibilities.
The space at Southwark Playhouse affords the possibility of intimacy as well as excellence. The recent production of Allegro there showed that. Side Show is, actually, a very intimate show, turning, as it does, on the lives of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins. So the marriage of venue and material ought to be prosperous. Alas, it is not.
Sir, guardian to Daisy and Violet, puts them to work as part of his Side Show attraction. For a dime, punters can catch glimpses of the rare exotic oddities Sir exploits, feeds and houses: amongst them – a bearded lady, a human pin cushion, a Dog Boy, a tattooed woman, a wild cannibal, a lizard man, a half-man half-woman, a three legged man, a fortune teller and some height-challenged Cossacks.
The twins are adored by their Side Show family, so when a flashy, smooth-talking, handsome agent, Terry, comes to offer to get them a contract for the Orpheum Circuit, the family is divided about what they should do. They squabble as any real, caring family would. The Conservative notion of “family” has no application here. Sir opposes their move, but the twins decide to go with Terry and his choreographer/performer pal, Buddy, to try their luck. Jake, who plays the cannibal in the Side Show, goes too. This decision brings the Side Show disaster, and while the twins flourish, their friends starve.
Violet falls in love with Buddy; Daisy would like to love Terry, or anyone really, but Terry does not seem interested. Their act succeeds despite their personal situation. Then Buddy proposes to Violet, which comes as a shock to Violet, to Terry, to Daisy and the man with whom Buddy has been having a sexual liaison. But Violet knows nothing of the truth about Buddy’s sexuality and accepts his hand in marriage, and Terry runs with it, ensuring that the wedding will achieve maximum national publicity – he sees it as a ticket to Hollywood.
The approach of the impending nuptials brings many feelings to the surface. Terry realises he is in love with Daisy but wants her on her own. Jake declares to Violet that he has always loved her, a fact known to everyone except Violet and a fact that causes Violet to radiate unspoken horror at the thought of a black and white union. When she rejects him, Jake leaves the twins to find another path. Daisy realises that she does not really want to be part of a ménage a trois, even though she wants her sister to be happy.
Despite conflicting medical advice, the twins question whether they should stay conjoined or take the risk of an operation that might kill either or both of them. The stakes are high.
But, at the steps of the altar, Buddy comes to his senses and refuses to go ahead with the marriage, refuses to hide his true self any further. Terry wants a wedding to happen and, for expediency and their careers, Daisy agrees – but Terry will only marry Daisy if she and Violet agree to have the separation operation.
As they dither, a movie mogul arrives to offer the twins a contract for a movie. But it is conditional upon them remaining whole. Realising that the only way forward is for Buddy to get his “pansy arse” in line, Terry blows Buddy’s cover in a fit of rage, demanding that he marry Violet as the publicity bandwagon requires, and shows the twins, clearly, that he is only interested in himself, not them.
There are no epic issues here; the fate of humanity or civilisation doesn’t turn on any choice made in Side Show. No, this is a good old-fashioned book musical which succeeds or fails on how involved the audience become with the characters.
It’s true that important issues – racism, sexism, self-loathing, exploitation – simmer and occasionally burst out, clamouring for attention. But those issues are all incidental to the central journey of self-awareness and self-worth that the Hilton twins undertake here. Indeed, sooner or later, most of the characters have to accept their lot before they can move on. Acceptance and normality are constantly in play.
The intimacy of the space works against Chissick’s decision to have the Side Show family up close and personal in the staging. Despite valiant work from Natasha Lawes the “freaks” never convince as “freaks”, the make-up and rubber masks are too obvious. This is a pity, because the essence of freakiness is actually more important than the appearance – wrapping the characters in shadows and letting them take advantage of the high levels in takis’ design, where they might be further obscured by glitz and mood lighting, may have helped enormously. Distance can work magic; in-your-face intimacy requires realism.
The glittery Side Show alley style set from takis is both slightly tawdry and fabulously inviting – it should have been a place for a deal of the acting; that simple step would have enhanced the narrative immeasurably. Glitter and shadows – a potent combination, here unaccountably, mostly, relegated to backdrop status only.
The actors do their best but the fakery interferes with the freakery. It’s the same with the twins; they are conjoined in an obvious and not very invasive way here. It is difficult to see why operations to separate them might be life threatening. In both cases, with the twins and the menagerie Sir keeps, neither are realistically portrayed in a physical sense nor achieved through impression; the overall effect suffers.
As far as the ensemble go, as the piece progresses and they take on roles other than the menagerie, things improve dramatically. They are hamstrung by the wooden boxes they are forced to move constantly, but vocally their work is excellent and their energy and attack can’t be faulted.
The true strength in this production lies in the qualities and skills of the leading performers. All are well matched and there is good chemistry in play.
Both Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford shine, their gorgeous voices more than equal to the task here. When they sing together, the blend is glorious, shiveringly splendid. Separately, each uses the versatility of their instrument to underline character traits. Dearman’s Daisy is brassy and perky, assured and genial; Pitt-Pulford’s Violet is introspective, frightened, subdued. Together, they are a wonder; separately, each twin faces her own inner conflict.
The two big numbers for the twins – Who will love Me As I Am and I Will Never Leave You – are delivered powerfully and passionately. They are, by some distance, the production’s finest moments.
As the wheeler dealer Terry, Haydn Oakley channels Jimmy Stewart – a smooth, hopeful and hokey exterior contrasts to the selfish heart within. Oakley is very good at not giving away Terry’s truths and keeping the audience guessing. He looks good and sings with suave confidence, his bright voice constantly a joy. His clever performance permits the ramming home of Side Show‘s insistent, and accurate point: Terry looks normal but isn’t; the twins don’t look normal but they absolutely are (and more).
Dominic Hodson is bright and breezy as the sexually obfuscating Buddy. He dances extremely well, does not overplay the angst, and manages to make Buddy’s proposal to Violet seem like a new beginning, a fresh horizon for Buddy, even when it is just opening the door to another level of hell for both bride and husband to be.
Playing the smart but sidelined Jake, Jay Marsh is particularly affecting, conveying a lifetime’s worth of humiliation in careful, unobtrusive ways. His superb You Should Be Loved is finely judged, robustly delivered, pain etching every note.
Some of the staging is effective but a lot is not. Far too much action occurs on the floor of the space and there is not enough variety in movement. The wooden boxes interfere with much.
Choreographer Matthew Cole delivers some exuberant numbers, but several fall flat when they could be much more exuberant and affecting . Stuck With You gets Act Two off to an impressive start and the One Plus One Equals Three zips along, albeit with the trace of Cabaret‘s Two Ladies firmly in the air.
Simon Hale’s reduced orchestrations are good, occasionally beautiful, but under Jo Cichonska the tempi of the music seemed continually too slow. There was not enough light and shade or simple energy in the accompaniment. The balance between band and players was mostly good but occasionally diction seemed a side show of its own.
The second Act works very well indeed and Chissick is to be congratulated for ensuring that it never fell into melodrama (well, apart from the unavoidable Sir moment). Much effort has gone into the separate and joint characterisations of the five leads and they all work well together, the layers building nicely across Act Two. On the other hand, while there is much going on, the first Act never really seems focussed or coherent.
It is well worth making time to see this Side Show. The quintet of leads are no side show, they are the real deal – a main attraction by any measure.