Twice-Broadway Flop Comes To London... And Flops
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To flop once on Broadway is unfortunate. Flop twice and Oscar Wilde would have something to say on the matter. Based on the life of real conjoined British twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, the critically-acclaimed, audience-shunned Side Show comes to the UK for the first time – will it fare better here on 'home' ground?
The New York Times' chief theatre critic Ben Brantley needs to shoulder his share of the blame that Side Show is here at all. Despite one of the most important scribes in the world giving his priceless endorsement, its first outing in 1997 crawled on for only another 91 performances. Perhaps off the back of that very same endorsement, a heavily revised version bounced back onto Broadway in 2014 — and then bounced off even faster than its predecessor. It is the latter take that is now at Southwark Theatre.
The show's core premise is something that speaks to everyone. We might not all share vital body organs with a sibling but we all have a love/hate relationship in our lives, and often more than one. It could be with the person we wake up to every morning who smells of sex and sin and all things nice but snored loudly through the night. It could be the city we live in, the car we drive, the job we go to or the parents that bore us into existence all those years ago and continue to occasionally bore us still.
In Side Show, we first meet Daisy (Louise Dearman) and Violet (Laura Pitt-Pulford) as the star turn of a travelling freak show. The owner is a bit of a brute and the other acts — including a three-legged man, a bearded lady and a cannibal king — are a mixture of medical wonders and phoneys. Before long, a pair of opportunistic outsiders with dollar signs for eyeballs attempt to drag the twins away.
Talking of drag, apart from a few highlights, that’s pretty much what the show does over its bum-numbing length. A large part of the blame for that can be aimed squarely at writer Bill Russell's tiresome approach to storytelling: why use a few sentences of exposition when an entire song will do? In a show full of monsters of all kinds, the most freakish thing here is how anyone thought it would take 27 songs and around two-and-a-half hours to tell this story.
True, some of composer Henry Krieger’s numbers are barnstormers, even if they are a more than a tad derivative of many a past musical. One Plus One Equals Three has the whiff of Weimar Germany but still stomps along at a cracking pace as does the opening Come Look At The Freaks. The penultimate song I Will Never Leave You and the thought-provoking theatrical flourishes at the end are heartbreaking signs of just what could have been.
Technically, the show is largely on the nose. Joined at the dress, Pitt-Pullford and Dearman show genuine chemistry and work well together even if Dearman has to scamper around in high heels to cover the height difference. The cast work their socks off in the dancing and singing departments and expertly cover for a missing actor (David Muscat as the Human Pin Cushion). Jay Marsh superbly mines his emotional seam as the twins' protector Jake, Chris Howell’s freak show owner is as enjoyable a baddie as we've seen in a while and Hannah Chissick's direction is fluid and fluent and moves everything along smoothly and rapidly. The intimate set-up brings us close to the action and makes us feel as if we are not just onlookers but the very voyeurs that Side Show subtly excoriates.
Dance captain Nuno Queimado deserves praise for the expressive choreography he marshals from the cast but he is let down by his risible 'lizard man' outfit which looks like the poor guy has been dunked first in superglue and then cornflakes. This isn’t a low budget production (it employs 14 full cast members, a live seven-piece band plus a hefty production team) so the generally poor costuming for Queimado and some of his fellow freaks is a mystery.
Appropriately enough, this show can best be seen as an awkward conjoining of a more than capable cast and crew with a musical that structurally fails to live up to its fascinating source material; even in the darkest dungeons of Soho, it would be difficult to find something as bloated and flaccid as Side Show's songbook. It says much that one of our favourite parts of this whole shebang was watching a small screen above the audience to see MD and band conductor Jo Cichonska joyfully rocking out in her booth.
Much like Mrs Henderson Presents with its nudity and Kinky Boots and its drag queens, Side Show potentially offers something different and exciting but ends up being a bland blancmange. The musical does ask some important questions around race and sexuality as well as addressing the elephant in the room: who are the real freaks here — those quirks of nature and frauds put on stage, those who employ them or the audience who pay to watch this perverse parade? Unfortunately, those points are only really explored towards the end by which time such interesting moralising is itself little more than a side show.
Side Show continues at Southwark Theatre until 3 December. Tickets are £25 (£20 concessions). More information can be found on the Southwark Theatre website.
Last Updated 14 November 2016