Review: Even Singing Sisters can’t save this Sideshow ✩✩

2star

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.

Henry Krieger (Lyrics) and Bill Russell (Book)
Henry Krieger (Lyrics) and Bill Russell (Book)

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.

Laura Pitt-Pulford
Laura Pitt-Pulford

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.

Louise Deadman
Louise Deadman

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.

Sideshow: Definitely a show of two halves
Sideshow: Definitely a show of two halves

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.

Sideshow
Southwark Playhouse until 3rd December
Tickets £25

Review: Grey Gardens at the Southwark Playhouse

4star

I approached Grey Gardens aware of its 10 Tony Award nominations. That it has taken 10 years to find a London home was a concern. Would this tale of two frankly batty old American socialites fallen into squalor on a Long Island estate in the East Hamptons even make sense to a British audience? I’m delighted to say it does – and Southwark has a sizeable hit on its hands. The house, home to 52 stray cats, a few rabid racoons and its two reclusive inhabitants may make an unlikely setting for a musical. But then again, Cats was set on a rubbish tip.

Jenna Russell: Edith Bouvier Beale 1941
Jenna Russell: Edith Bouvier Beale 1941 [Scott Rylander]
The inhabitants in question, “Little” Edie Bouvier Beale and her mother, Edith Bouvier Beale, were cousin and aunt to Jackie Kennedy Onassis – and therein lay the scandal.

Danielle Tarento’s production is brave and mesmerising. From the moment you set foot inside the home of this most eccentric mother and daughter, Tom Rogers (Set) and Howard Hudson (Lighting) create a feeling of stifling suffocation in the industrial Southwark Playhouse. The set nods to both Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and the interior of Dickens’ Satis House. Grey Gardens is both mausoleum and mansion. Lamps are set on an angle. Upturned chairs, whisky and dirt rise up from an ochre sea of discarded hats and scarves; faded photographs peer down at the bare floorboards. Suitcases which clearly haven’t travelled anywhere in decades lie filled with unworn clothes. Only a Bakelite telephone on an upright piano hints at what is to come.

Sheila Hancock (Old Edith) enters like a ghostly Miss Havisham, momentarily followed by Jenna Russell (“Little” Edie) who trudges down the stairs like a weary Norma Desmond who can’t really be bothered. These women live in a social enclave where you can be arrested for wearing red shoes on a Thursday. So perhaps it’s perfectly normal to want to elope with the cat or believe that “if you can’t get a man to propose then you might as well be dead”?

If you can't get a man to propose to you then you might as well be dead.
If you can’t get a man to propose to you then you might as well be dead. [Scott Rylander]

Grey Gardens (book Doug Wright, music Scott Frankel and lyrics Michael Korie) takes a documentary probably better known to US audiences and with a little embellishing of the truth, turns it into an accomplished stage musical. Jenna Russell plays both “Little” Edie Beale and Edith Bouvier Beale, with Sheila Hancock taking the role of the older Edith in 1973. Both performances are quite remarkable, with both Hancock and Russell providing charm and fallibility in equal measure. The mother-daughter bond is at once touchingly sad and horribly claustrophobic -and never less than delightfully eccentric.

Much of 1941 seems to have been spent around the piano or ruining their children’s relationships. Edith’s “gin and platonic” amour George Gould Strong (Jeremy Lagat) provides a succession of fantastic one-liners and bitchy asides, “I just adore children – especially grown ones”. Their relationship is one of mutual benefit – she adores singing and he adores glamour. At times Lagat’s acting can’t quite match the women on stage but his versatility as a pianist and singer more than compensates.

Piano
If your mother hangs out with pianists, what do you expect? [Scott Rylander]
Edith’s father J.V. Major Bouvier (Billy Boyle) is a man obsessed with responsibility and devastated that his daughter did not turn out republican. He makes no secret of his revulsion for the effeminate Gould or his disappointment of a daughter who is “An actress without a stage.”

If there were any doubt of Gould’s homosexuality, it is soon put to bed with the arrival of the strikingly handsome Joseph Patrick Kennedy (Aaron Sidwell). A study in assured ego and chiselled features, Sidwell’s Kennedy is perfectly described by Gould – “Somewhere…there is a pedestal missing its statue”. Sadly his love for “little” Edie expires as soon as he realises that she isn’t First Lady material.

You're just not First Lady material...
You’re just not First Lady material… [Scott Rylander]
Men don’t come off very well at all in Grey Gardens. Edith’s husband fails to arrive at his daughter’s engagement, preferring instead to send a telegram from Mexico to inform her that he is divorcing her mother. Although the musical’s book does take some fairly dramatic liberties, it perfectly highlights a world of hypocrisy in which society women were often trapped.

“Little” Edie quite possibly suffered what would now be diagnosed as bipolar disorder, leading to sometimes extreme behaviour. Her relationship to Edith is often that of Rapunzel to the Witch – both so determined to protect one other from the world outside that neither is truly free to enjoy it.

In 1941, little Edie is played by relative newcomer Rachel Anne Rayham who is out-performed by the more experienced cast before coming into her own in the terrific “Two Peas in a Pod” and “Daddies Girl”. The musical numbers lift a plot which might otherwise lag. This is particularly true of the beautiful “Drift Away” which beautiful paints a man more faithful to Edith than the husband who promised to be.

And that's the revolutionary costume of today!
And that’s the revolutionary costume of today! [Scott Rylander]
Act Two leaps forward to 1973 with one of the great performances of Musical Theatre as Jenna Russell’s now 56-year-old “little” Edie takes to the stage in a revolutionary knitted costume, designed to cover her alopecia though not her dignity. It’s pant-wettingly funny and worth the cost of a ticket alone. Hancock’s deadpan delivery of put-downs as “Old” Edith is second to none. What daughter doesn’t want to hear “Is it my fault that you’re unmarried, bald and fat?” and “You look horrible”. But as Edith says, it’s very difficult to raise a child of 56 years old.

Aaron Sidwell returns in Act Two as the beguiling houseboy, Jerry and somehow maintains pretty-but-dumb sex appeal amongst piles of meat, trash and cat faeces. The desperation of two lonely women competing for his attention, including the euphemistic desire of old Edith to get him to “eat her corn”, is both heart-breaking and slightly unsettling.

Jerry likes my corn...
Jerry likes my corn… [Scott Rylander]
56 year old Edie is never lost for a comeback to her mother’s put-downs with lines such as “I can’t lose weight – the ice box is too near” or more practially when  we’re not too sure if Edie is feeding her mother pate or a tin of giblets meant for the cats.

Thom Southerland’s direction is light and deft and Lee Proud‘s intelligent choreography cleverly interprets a strong score performed well under the supervision and direction of Simon Lee and Michael Bradley. The only time the music really seems incongruous is in the (admittedly) uplifting “Choose to be happy” which adds some light relief in a gospel number performed entirely in old Edith’s bedroom and up the staircase.

Choose to be happy.
Choose to be happy. [Scott Rylander]
Grey Gardens is best summed up by one line. “The definition of character? To take a scandal and make it a triumph.” And Grey Gardens is most undoubtedly triumphant.

Grey Gardens
Southwark Playhouse until 6th February
020 7407 0234
www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

An unforgettable chat with Luke Fredericks on his latest Bat Boy!

Batboy: It’s a BEAST of a show

Rob Compton as Bat Boy
Rob Compton as the eponymous Bat Boy

Meeting Luke Fredericks – currently directing Batboy which begins previews at the Southwark Playhouse tonight, 9th January 2015 – is unforgettable. Full of energy and passion, it’s a privilege to meet this ebullient young director, whose recent production of Carousel, New York Times critic Ben Brantley described as Read more