Side Show – Southwark Playhouse, London

Book and Lyrics: Bill Russell
Music: Henry Krieger
Director: Hannah Chissick
Reviewer: Daniel Perks

A carnival of freaks, a Side Show where Sir (Chris Howell) parades the outcasts of yesteryear. Nowadays it is ok to be different, alternative – in many ways it is considered trendy, a bold statement of one’s individuality. The Half Man Half Woman (Kirstie Skivington) or the Tattooed Girl (Agnes Pure) would not (we hope) be cast aside in the modern world, but celebrated for their uniqueness. Back then, the word “unique” is masqueraded around as a ruse, a way of lulling innocent ladies such as Daisy (Louise Dearman) and Violet Hilton (Laura Pitt-Pulford) with contrasting promises of fame and normality. Bill Russell and Henry Krieger’s musical draws a parallel between now and then, being ostracised for one’s differences and finding comfort in a fellow “freak”.

tell-us-block_editedHannah Chissick’s production makes use of a thrust stage seating arrangement, almost a big top in which to parade around the oddities of nature, the opening number Come Look At The Freaks immediately singling the protagonists out against the world. For these people, life is one big show; the right of being treated as a person and not a commodity is not one this cast seem to have bestowed upon them. Krieger’s score soars upwards right from the word go, impactful opening and closing numbers book-ending an aspirational atmosphere that is ultimately dashed.

Songs of wanting to belong, being Like Everybody Else and Typical Girls Next Door accentuate Russell’s story of the Hilton sisters that find fame in their differences but are prodded and poked regardless of their desires. People see them as an attraction, not as individuals – considering they are conjoined twins this is too difficult to comprehend. Even in romance, agent Terry (Haydn Oakley) can only dream of a life with “shameless flirt” Daisy (Dearman) if she were separated; Private Conversation a rare chance in his mind for the two of them to escape “boring introvert” twin sister Violet (Pitt-Pulford) that culminates in a soaring, richly scored duet. Creative partner Buddy (Dominic Hudson) sympathises with the two to a greater degree, but only because he is battling demons of his own. His secret is equally abhorrent in the 1930s but much easier to hide, never mentioned but constantly eluded to and quipped about throughout the show – a lingering glance at a male dancer, a kiss with Violet through pursed lips, a sham marriage proposal in a desperate attempt not to be alone.

Three supporting men, all desperate to get the attention of the sisters in one way or another in search of fame – whether treating them well like Buddy and Terry, or treating them poorly like Sir, each sees an opportunity. Only friend and protector Jake (Jay Marsh), a fellow outcast, sees them as people, loves them (particularly Violet) as people. This rare bout of genuine affection and tenderness sets his vocal apart from the rest, his swan song You Should Be Loved proving an emotional highlight in a stronger, more impactful Act 2. Russell’s script ramps up towards the end – the stakes are higher and the bittersweet realisation hits home – their lives are destined to always be merely a show. Daisy’s “Say goodbye to the Side Show” pluckiness of Act 1 is but a distant memory by the end.

In a show that deals in extremes and differences, the majority of the production is flat. The chorus are vocally strong but lacking a magical touch; the music is constantly climactic and seemingly inspired Wicked and Les Miserables, albeit less successful than either; the story is reminiscent of a somewhat warped Disney film, wishing to belong but without the happy ending. This is an entirely forgettable show were it not for the knockout performances of the two leads, theatrical powerhouses so exceptional that everything around them pales by comparison. Pitt-Pulford and Dearman are contrasting and complementary, at some parts a tug of war as to who can be stronger but ultimately a combination that is greater than the sum of its parts. Their duets, complete with all the emotional devices that Russell and Krieger can muster, seem to shine like beacons in an otherwise dreary sea, full of conflict and hope and dreaded realisation. Feelings You’ve Got to Hide, a polyphonic quandry with each desperate to find romance but of the mind it can never happen; Who Will Love Me As I Am, a climactic Act 1 close where true happiness is snuffed out like a candle; I Will Never Leave You, the money shot where they know they will always have each other, for better or worse. These adeptly placed pieces chart both characters development to an unhappy ending.

Side Show is a bittersweet piece, with the final emphasis on bitter. It is refreshing to have an ending where they don’t all skip off into the sunset – life doesn’t work that way, whether you’re considered an outsider or not. Chissick captures the essence of Russell and Krieger’s work but substitutes what should be an avant garde piece with a middle of the road vision.

Runs until 3 December 2016 | Image: Pamela Raith

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