★★★ | Side Show at Southwark Playhouse

There’s something grimly fascinating about conjoined twins. As a child, I longed for a twin, someone within the family who would be just like me and understand me completely. Conversely, I also found family life constraining and claustrophobic and wanted solitude and escape. Imagine having a twin who you share a body with and the implications of this? It’s a strange notion to consider.

CREDIT: Pamela Raith

One of the most fascinating sets of conjoined twins in history was Daisy and Violet Hilton. They were born in Brighton in 1908 and were joined at the pelvis, sharing some blood supply. Displayed in freak shows, they ultimately hit the vaudeville circuit in America and ended up appearing in films. Their personal life was unconventional: they ‘divorced’ their guardian and manager, both married gay men and died alone with one twin dying a few days before the other.

Russell and Krieger’s 1997 musical Side Show should be a fascinating and moving tale. It is and it isn’t. There are some spectacularly good songs but also some drearily forgettable ones. The musical feels a tad derivative at times with too many echoes of Chicago and Cabaret but at others feels unique and powerful. Daisy and Violet’s story begins at the freak show and the ‘freaks’ act out the events of their life; doubling as reporters, courtroom attendants, wedding guests etc. Again, this could have worked well but the whole show feels less of a missed opportunity but more like an almost achieved opportunity.

The two leads are the supremely talented musical theatre actresses Louise Dearman (the only actress to have played both Glina and Elphaba in Wicked) and Laura Pitt-Pulford. They carry the show and have an electrifying presence. They’re ably supported by Dominic Hodson and Haydn Oakley as their career propelling prospective suitors. The problem lies in how the rest of the cast are used.

The ‘freaks’ are dressed in what looks like Halloween costumes made by someone’s mother and they’re all a bit too stagey in their actions and expressions. There are lots of broad gestures and facial contortions whilst they enthusiastically plod through the seen-before choreography. The Southwark Playhouse is a small and intimate space and works well for close-up musical theatre but not when the cast is behaving like it’s The London Palladium and the clothes don’t bear up to scrutiny from anything less than 50 feet away.

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Overall, it’s a show worth catching, if only for the chance to see two of musical theatre’s rising stars perform so beautifully at such close quarters. Just try not to ‘Come Look at the Freaks’ (as the opening and closing songs implore). You might feel embarrassed and not for any of the wrong reasons.

Side Shows plays at the Southwark Playhouse until 3rd December

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About the author: Chris Bridges
Chris is a theatre and book obsessed Midlander who escaped to London. He's usually to be found slumped in a seat in a darkened auditorium.