Ned Hopkins | 27 Oct 2016 13:03pm
Photo: Pamela Raith
What is normal? At the denouement of the cult Broadway musical Side Show currently revived at Southwark Playhouse, the exotic performers who have to use their disabilities to make a living, finally turn with their make-up mirrors tilted towards the audience. Come Look at the Freaks they sing, reminding us that to a greater or lesser extent we are all freaks; or at least, as a gentler word used in the show would have it, ‘unique’.
The real-life conjoined Hilton Sisters, Daisy and Violet, played here by the excellent Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford, were originally from England. Brought to the USA by their self-loathing mother, when she died they were adopted by the unpleasant, bullying ‘Sir’ (a powerful performance from Chris Howell) to become the main attraction in his collection of sideshow oddities.
Mercifully, they are spotted here by Terry – purporting to be a talent scout for the Orpheum Circuit – and his friend Buddy a song-and-dance man. Following a successful court case and finally released from drudgery, we watch them groom the girls for stardom in vaudeville and later in the Follies (only suggested in this version). By the end, they are about to embark on a film career in Hollywood.
Both actors partner each other well and their voices blend together effectively in the duets, especially the haunting ballads Buddy Kissed Me, Who Will Love Me As I Am? and I Will Never Leave You. They deliver largely upbeat performances, just occasionally revealing private moments of self-pity. Naturally constrained, though nearly always as engaging double act, the one sequence where Terry conjures up in his mind an unaccompanied Daisy is particularly moving.
Strong support is provided from the weak by likeable, light-footed Buddy (Dominic Hodson) and Terry (Haydn Oakley) the more self-serving of the pair who comes in to his own in the second half. There is also good work from by Jay Marsh as an African-American who has been humiliatingly subjugated by Sir to play a cannibal in the sideshow before being invited to help look after the sisters in their new life. The strength of Jake’s feelings for Violet when he sees through Buddy only becomes apparent late on in the show, when he breaks into what is arguably the loveliest song amongst several, You Should Be Loved.
The production is simply staged, yet with stylish set and costumes (by takis) and is imaginatively directed by Hannah Chiswick with clever choreography from Michael Cole. Once the sisters leave the sideshow, they ingeniously let the remaining sideshow characters perform both individually and as a Greek-style chorus to help move on the story. As the sisters exchange rags for riches and their differences and emotional needs begin to assert themselves, the more outrageous aspects of the freaks’ appearance vanish until each character is left dressed alike to become just an anonymous supporting artiste in the Hilton Sisters act.
The fact that the two women in the main roles are not identical helps establish their own individuality, especially in Act 2 when Buddy professes his love for Violet, and Daisy pines for Terry. At this point, speculation on the practicalities of romancing a Siamese twin might tumble into too-much-information territory, but it is to the show’s credit that the situation is kept largely respectable, the what-if aspects enacted only in a hilarious comedy number One Plus One Equals Three, somewhat reminiscent of Two Ladies in Cabaret.
Given a more lavish presentation in its first New York outing in 1997, this is the considerably revised 2014 version of the show. None the worse for that, though, concentrating on the plight of the women without overuse of theatrical razzle-dazzle. Yet, one senses that the writers were never sure how best to end the piece. On the eve of Buddy’s wedding to Violet, he gets cold feet (it is hinted he might be gay, which both girls’ husbands were in real life) whilst Terry hedges his bets, awaiting the outcome of an – actually very dubious – operation he has investigated and encouraged the twins to consider.
The somewhat ambiguous ending reinforces the show’s message: we are who we are and destiny has intended the girls to stick, literally, together and never be alone. If there are some unanswered questions in Bill (Elegies For Angels, Punks & Raging Queens) Russell’s and Bill Condon’s book, you are left to discuss them in the bar afterwards. At least Violet and Daisy’s lives and success reinforce the view that there is nothing to be ashamed of in being different.
Musically, Side Show has one of the best scores I have heard for a long time. The numbers (by Henry Krieger, whose other show Dreamgirls opens shortly at The Savoy) seamlessly segue from toe-tapping show songs evoking the forced jollity of musical entertainment during the Depression era (e.g. Stuck With You) to the more contemporary sounding ballads – all set to Russell’s efficient lyrics.
Southwark has done sterling work this year, introducing London audiences to yet another selection of first-rate musicals with Grey Gardens, Allegro and now Side Show. All productions of a high calibre, none of which might ever have been seen over here if it had it not been for the theatre’s imaginative programming and risk-taking. Long may it continue!
Photo: Pamela Raith