They say bad things happen in threes – and that was certainly true in 1997, when Broadway audiences were subjected to the sinking of Titanic, Jekyll mutating into Hyde and Siamese Twins Daisy and Violet Hilton stuck together like glue in Sideshow.
Since then, there have been numerous resurfacings for Titanic and David Hasselhoff has sung This Is The Moment from Jekyll & Hyde in virtually every panto imaginable. Now it’s the turn of Southwark Playhouse to resurrect Sideshow – the story of Daisy and Violet: the most famous singing twins in showbusiness – well, until Jedward and The Cheeky Girls came along.
Southwark Playhouse is turning into a factory for Off-West End hit shows, but sadly Sideshow probably won’t be one of them. That’s not to say there aren’t some great things about this production – at its best it is sublime, with towering central performances from Louise Dearman (Daisy) and Laura Pitt-Pulford (Violet): At its worst it is a slow motion cart-crash of gothic vaudeville, parts of which put me in mind of Elephant Man the Musical, the glorious pastiche of OTT musicals from The Tall Guy.
The show starts with Daisy and Violet together on stage. They have to be, you see, they’re Siamese Twins. Not that it’s a very politically correct description these days…but then in this show, very little is. After a gentle introduction, we’re blasted with a decidedly unsubtle grand opening number “Come Look At The Freaks”. Director Hanna Chissick and Choreographer Matthew Cole manage to make this entertaining and the ensemble deliver with energy and verve, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the freaks on show here would probably be more at home on the Strictly Come Dancing Halloween special.
That Paul Taylor Mills’ production doesn’t have the budget of a big West End show isn’t the problem – it’s the turgid lyrics and badly written book (Bill Russell) which is so unforgivable. What should shock – which is what made real “freak shows” so popular – instead delivers a slightly weird fancy dress party strewn with lazy rhyming couplets, leaving one to sit and ponder instead if the cast was each given fifty quid and simply told to “see what Angels have on special offer” while the creative team tried their best to redact the worst of the lyrics.
Once you get past the extreme shock of seeing Conchita Wurst dancing with Chewbacca’s head, and a human lizard chasing a man with three legs, all you really need to know about Act One is that it will be over in 65 more minutes.
As to the rest of the plot, well there’s Daisy and Violet, who narrowly escaped life with a mother in Brighton who would make Mme Thenardier look like Mary Poppins and instead fall into the evil clutches of a man who shouts a lot and treats then abysmally. Fortunately (depending on your point of view) Buddy (endearingly played by Haydn Oakley), an aspiring musician arrives with Terry (Dominic Hodson) to whisk the girls off to the Orpheum circuit. Although this appeals more to Daisy than Violet, it’s hard to go your separate ways when you’re conjoined twins. After a brief chat and a few more musical numbers, the girls wave goodbye to their fellow freaks who bid them farewell with a few cringe-worthy platitudes (So long we adore you/we’ll be rooting for you) and with Jake the Cannibal King in tow, leave with Buddy and Terry for a life of Vaudevillian glamour and free babycham.
That’s about the gist of Act One. There are some funny lines, like when Buddy tells the twins that he’s very well connected, to which they reply “So are we!” but the book is so poorly written that at moments you might wonder why established musical theatre names like Laura Pitt-Pulford and Louise Dearman agreed to the gig. Only when the focus is solely on Daisy & Violet’s relationship does the show offer any true emotional resonance and that’s as much credit to the acting strength and vocal power of Dearman and Pitt-Pulford as to the show itself.
I returned to Act two with a sense of fear and trepidation – were we in store for another hour of the same? Well, here I will admit to experiencing a Damascene conversion – albeit temporary. Having largely loathed the first half of the show, Act Two was a pleasant surprise. It’s almost as if the producers had fired the writers during the interval and brought in a whole new creative team. Where Act One simply plods, Act Two delves deeper into the characters of two remarkable women bound together by a simple twist of nature, and the effect is spellbinding. Gone the syrupy mawkishness and repetitive scoring and instead we begin to peel back the layers of the twins as individuals – and the show is infinitely better for it.
Louise Dearman’s Daisy is both genuinely funny and deeply troubled – her heartbreak during a scene set at New Year is palpable. There is a tragic inevitability to her sister Violet’s choice to love the wrong man, in part because of her own and in part society’s prejudice against interracial marriage.
The true tragedy of Sideshow’s characters is not their enforced companionship, but their isolation. Each of the four main characters is as lonely as they are trapped, with each relationship doomed by the simple situation of two women who cannot be physically parted. Here, I must raise a serious concern with the choreography of the show: You simply cannot stage a show about conjoined twins without being very sure about WHERE they are conjoined. At times they seemed joined at the hip, and at others at the back.
In fact, in my visit during previews, it seemed at times that all surgeons would have needed were a pair of nail scissors and a couple of aspirin to successfully part Daisy and Violet. The set design and direction are also of concern – and if you’re unlucky enough to be sat in the highest and lowest number seating in each row you’ll spend half the show wondering what on earth the rest of the audience is looking at…which in a space as small as Southwark is problematic.
I would gladly watch Sideshow again…albeit I’d probably stay in the bar for Act One, especially if I had a side seat. Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford are worth ten times the price of a ticket, and there are plenty of great one liners like when Terry proposes to Violet and Daisy quips “If you don’t say yes I’ll have a heart attack that will kill us both!” – but a few great one liners won’t save this show.
I couldn’t help but think that one number in act two, One Plus One Equals Three was rather a poor imitation of Two Ladies from Cabaret, but by way of redemption, ballads like I Will Never Leave You soar to the stratosphere and when the score works, it really does pack a terrific punch. If you love big overblown modern-gothic musical theatre you’ll find the score richly rewarding. Sideshow could be wonderful, but it needs to be completely rewritten and I’m afraid that rather like surgery on Daisy and Violet, any operation might just as easily result in one half surviving and the other losing the will to live.
Southwark Playhouse until 3rd December