Side Show

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 Side Show: The Musical they are ‘discovered’ by two-bit producer Terry, who admires them for their exoticism and understands the limitless attraction they hold over those who are willing to pay for entertainment. He has them trained and they quickly become one of the most famous vaudeville acts in New York. The story is of their rise to notoriety, the prejudices they face and the ownership they eventually take over their own lives in a world that relentlessly objectifies them.

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. 

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The Blurb

Inspired by the true story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, Side Show is a remarkable musical about love, acceptance and embracing the unique.

The Hilton Sisters make ends meet playing a headline act at a seedy side show, languishing under the rule of an oppressive ringmaster. But when spotted by a talent agent, they are thrust into the spotlight of the famed 1920’s Orpheum Circuit. They soon become the highest paid vaudeville stars of their time, but whilst Daisy relishes the spotlight, Violet wishes for a quiet life with a man she loves, and who loves her. Can they balance their individual dreams with their inescapable physical connection? Side Show is a heartwarming search for first love and acceptance, amidst the spectacle of fame and scrutiny under the spotlight.

Side Show is presented by Paul Taylor-Mills, who returns to Southwark Playhouse following his three-time Olivier Award winning production of In The Heights and the WhatsonStage award winning production of Carrie: The Musical. Side Show features a score by Dreamgirls composer Henry Krieger and lyrics by Bill Russell (Elegies for Angels and Punks and Raging Queens).

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