REVIEW: Side Show, Southwark Playhouse ✭✭✭✭✭

Side Show The Muiscal is the story of the Hilton Sisters - conjoined Siamese twins.
Louise Dearman (Daisy) and Laura Pitt Pulford (Violet) in Side Show. Photo: Pamela Raith

Side Show
Southwark Playhouse
26 October 2016
5 Stars
Book Tickets

Come look at the freaks, the pygmies and geeks,
Come examine these aberrations, their malformations, grotesque physiques,
Only pennies for peeks, Come look at the freaks!”

So begins the opening number of Side Show, a musical by Henry Krieger and Bill Russell now playing at Southwark Playhouse. When I first heard that a musical based on Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined Siamese twins who went from a side show to Vaudeville to Hollywood fame was in the making many years ago, I thought that we were about to witness one of those great, gorgeously disastrous musical nightmares that haunt Broadway and the West End from time to time. How wrong could I have been!

Since that time there have been two major Broadway productions of the musical, and whilst both have garnered incredible reviews across the boards, both quickly disappeared from the Great White Way. Now almost twenty years later, London gets to experience not just one but two of Kreiger’s great scores simultaneously (his legendary musical Dreamgirls opens at the Savoy Theatre this month) as Side Show is unveiled to London audiences and what a remarkable treasure box of wonders it is.

Side Show The Musical at Southwark Playhouse
The Freaks of Side Show. Photo: Pamela Raith

Side Show travails universal themes of love, compassion and acceptance. Starting in a run-down Texan sideshow run by the girl’s guardian Sir, Daisy and Violet are the headline act amongst an array of human oddities. Eventually escaping the sideshow thanks to a Vaudeville agent, the sisters are thrust out into the world where all is not as it seems, where their emotions are toyed with, and where ultimately they realise that it is their relationship with each other that will sustain them.

Playing the Hilton sisters are Louise Dearman (Daisy) and Laura Pitt-Pulford (Violet). They are perfectly cast and compliment each other in every way. Pitt-Pulford’s shy Violet and Dearman’s slightly more bullish Daisy, clearly outline the sort of torment, confusion and fear that must have been a daily part of life in the sideshow, and how their lives changed once on the Vaudeville circuit. Krieger and Russell have written two of the greatest Broadway theatre anthems for the sisters in Who Will Love Me As I Am? and I Will Never Leave You, which Dearman and Pitt-Pulford knock out of the ballpark with exquisite ease. These two numbers alone will leave you in raptures if you are a lover of musical theatre.

Book tickets for Side Show at Southwark Playhouse
Christopher Howell as Sir in Side Show at Southwark Playhouse

Told in retrospect, the other freaks from the side-show help tell the story of the twins remarkable rise.  It would be easy for the musical to fall flat but this talented ensemble ensures that the pace of the narrative is kept moving at all times. Genevieve Taylor (Fortune Teller), Agnes Pure (Tattooed Girl), Lala Barlow (Bearded Lady), Kirstie Skivington (Half man Half woman), Nuno Quiemado(Lizard Man), Nuwan Hugh Perera (Three Legged Man), Oliver Marshall (Dog Boy) and David Muscat (Human Pin Cushion) are Daisy and Violet’s safety blanket.

Perhaps one of the most interesting characters in this story is Jake (Jay Marsh). Recruited by Sir to look after the girls, he becomes confidant and saviour to the sisters, helping them escape Sir, raising concerns about Terry and Buddy, and ensuring their well-being. Marsh’s rich vocals and stage presence make him a force to be reckoned with. His renditions of The Devil You Don’t and You Should Be Loved are nothing short of superb.

Book tickets for Side Show at Southwark Playhouse
Dominic Hodson (Buddy Foster), Louise Dearman (Daisy Hilton), Laura Pitt Pulford (Violet Hilton) and Nuno Queimado in Side Show. Photo: Pamela Raith

Dreamgirls film director Bill Condon provided book revisions to this version of Dream Girls, and his touches combined with Bill Russell’s original vision, make us wonder just who the freaks are in this story. The controlling aunt, the maniacal Sir (played to perfection by Chris Howell), Terry the Vaudeville agent (played by Haydn Oakley) determined to release the girls from Sir’s control for his own purposes or Buddy, the choreographer/song and dance man (played by Dominic Hodson) who also has his own reasons for becoming close to the girls.

It is unfortunate for the sisters that no matter the distance they have travelled, or the truths they have been subjected to they start Side Show as freaks, and finish their journey in Hollywood labelled in the same way. Their hard work, sacrifices and pain appear to have been for nought, except for the realisation that, in the end, all they have is each other. This realisation is quite crushing not only to the girls but to the audience.

By tickets for Side Show at Southwark Playhouse
The cast of Side Show. Photo: Pamela Raith

Hannah Chiswick has marshalled all the forces of modern musical theatre to make Side Show one of the truly great evenings it deserves to be. Harrowing, joyous, painful and inspiring in equal measure, it is an evening in the theatre to be savoured and enjoyed like a fine wine.

Musical Supervisor Simon Hale and Musical Director Jo Cichonska provide a lively accompaniment to the fast-paced spectacle on stage. Matthew Cole’s choreography never allows the cast, let alone the audience to tire or bore. Like Eva Peron’s rise to power, Daisy and Violet have a long way to ascend in the two-hour course of this production, the disappointment at the end result, all the more palpable because of the supreme effort placed in the endeavour.

Hopefully, this will be the first of many productions of Side Show here in the UK, although I doubt any will match the talents involved here or the transcendent brilliance of its two incredible leading ladies. Bravo!


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