Side Show – CLF Art Cafe, London

Book and Lyrics: Bill Russell

Music: Henry Krieger

Director: Dom O’Hanlon

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Side Showwasn’t a success when it first opened on Broadway in 1997. However, after a successful revival in 2015, it premiered in the UK at the Southwark Playhouse a year later. Theatre company Pint of Wine’s new production at the cool CLF Art Cafe in Peckham underlines, once and for all, that Side Showis a modern masterpiece.

Based on real-life events, Side Showtells the story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton who are ‘rescued’ from a travelling freak show in 1920s America. However, their saviours, a musician and a talent scout, may, in their quest to make the twins Vaudeville and Hollywood stars, be just as exploitative as their legal guardian back at the circus. As Daisy and Violet become the toast of American society, they struggle to remember their early dreams to be like everyone else.

Bill Russell’s irresistible book really comes to life up on the top floor on Peckham’s Bussey Building with Roberta Volpe’s set making good use of the pillars that pepper the space to create the inside of a circus tent. The muted colours of the screens that are wheeled around capture the faded glamour of the Roaring Twenties, and the variety of Lemington Ridley’s costumes is remarkable for this amateur production. Professional productions would steal for this aesthetic.

Of course, for any musical to be successful, the songs must be good, and here, with lyrics by Russell, and music by Dreamgirls’ Henry Krieger, the tunes are cracking. The first song Come Look at the Freaks, sung by the whole cast is a dramatic opening as we are introduced to the twins’ fellow performers at the circus. Among them, we have a bearded lady, a three-legged man and the ‘cannibal’ Jake, who becomes Violet’s protector. With nods to the Charleston, the songs are very varied and when performed by the whole ensemble, the atmosphere is electric.

As Daisy and Violet, Katie Beudert and Lauren Edwards are very good, ensuring their characters are starkly different; Beudert is wide-eyed and giggly with excitement as she craves a career in show-business while Edwards, hardly smiling, is more cynical about their promised fame. Joined at the waist by their dresses, they are very convincing. However, they don’t quite give justice to the two best numbers of the show, Who Will Love Me As I Amand I Will Never Leave You. Perhaps it’s a problem with the mics they are wearing, or perhaps the band is too loud, but Beudert and Edwards seem to shout out these songs rather than give the lyrics the attention and subtlety they deserve.

All the cast work hard, none other than Barry O’Reilly, who plays Buddy, an aspiring choreographer and who seems to be in every scene. He sings and taps effortlessly, although the director, Dom O’Hanlon, has chosen to almost hide Buddy’s duplicitous behaviour. Alexander Bellinfantie as Jake is in fine voice when he sings, but he needs to project more when he speaks, as often his words are inaudible. As Terry, the talent scout, Matthew James Nicholas impresses, perfectly balancing a mixture of the scoundrel and the businessman.

For a show that’s only on for two weeks, this is a generous production, and it really merits a longer run. While not perfect, it’s definitely worth catching the train down to Peckham, one of London’s most vibrant districts.

Runs until 13 October 2018 | Image: Michael Smith

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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