Daisy and Violet Hilton were
real-life Siamese twins in Texas plucked from relative freak-show obscurity and
who rose to a dazzling but fleeting stardom. In
The gripes I have with Side Show are entirely related to the musical itself. Hannah Chissick’s interpretation is full of energy and good performances, but those onstage are consistently limited by the quality of the writing.
Side Show is an exciting premise for a musical, but sadly, the characters are desperately underwritten and as a result it is very hard to emotionally invest in them. Even the central, turbulent journey of Violet and Daisy fails to really move and their developing relationships are superficially drawn. The ‘bad guys’ – for lack of a better term – are objectively cruel, aggressive and unsympathetic. There is no light or shade to these caricatures and as a result, the performances, particularly those of Auntie (a wicked stepmother figure with a broad cockney accent) and Sir (who resembles nothing so much as a Dickensian uber-villain), err toward the pantomime.
The narrative arc, too, is overly ambitious. Crucial scenes are cut short by the necessity of a two-and-a-half hour running time and the book therefore feels under-developed. The story is a genuinely fascinating one and any chapter of Violet and Daisy’s story could be teased out into a full musical in its own right – the court case against Sir in which they win their freedom from him, or the backstory in which they are sold by their mother, to name but two – but so many scenes are packed in that everything feels hurried.
The plot is advanced almost exclusively by the musical numbers and the dialogue feels totally superfluous. There is a five-minute cameo appearance by Harry Houdini, for example, which one might consider a formative experience for the twins. It is certainly designed to be, but as he merely appears in order to belt out a musical number, All in Your Mind, and then is never seen again, this falls a little flat. His impact is supposed to be seminal but the fleeting nature of the vignette undermines its emotional significance. The musical is littered with these heightened dramatic moments which never realise their true potential and seem unnecessarily shoehorned into the book.
This does not undermine the astonishing talent of those who are onstage, however. Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford give remarkable performances as Daisy and Violet. Pitt-Pulford is a considered actor, and her portrayal of Violet (the more reserved of the two) is full of vulnerability and sensitivity, while Dearman is spunky and charming. They work extremely well together, their relationship with one another feels like the most authentic part of the show and their voices blend beautifully. Indeed, the cast of Side Show is small, with actors frequently multi-roling, and therefore the musical relies on tight ensemble moments, which are delivered at a consistently high-quality. The choreography, by Matthew Cole, is especially impressive as it makes clever use of the space – in the aisles, on raised platforms of wooden boxes – so that the small supporting cast create a West End-worthy spectacle even in the intimate setting of the Southwark Playhouse.
The gripes I have with Side Show are entirely related to the musical itself. Hannah Chissick’s interpretation is full of energy and good performances, but those onstage are consistently limited by the quality of the writing. This is an excellent production of a show that feels like it has too much to say and too little time to say it.