Southwark Playhouse Autumn 2016
A curious choice for a revival, this musical lasted less than three months on Broadway in 1997, while a revised version (used here) had an even shorter run in 2014. It is, frankly, not a good musical – and not for what might seem at first to be the reason, its unpromising material.
Side Show is the fictionalised but essentially accurate story of the real life Hilton Sisters, conjoined twins who rose from sideshow freaks to B-list vaudeville performers in the 1920s and 1930s.
But the problem with Side Show is not the subject, which is no more unlikely than, say, a musical genius living in an opera house cellar or a miner's son who wants to dance ballet.
It is that creators Bill Russell (book and lyrics), Henry Krieger (music) and Bill Condon ('additional book material' for the 2014 version) seem to have used up all their invention in the concept, and the musical itself is so formulaic and predictable as to become less and less interesting as it goes along.
Stop me if (given the subject) any of the following surprise you.
The show opens in a side show with a song Come Look At The Freaks. The girls are 'discovered' by not one but, conveniently, two vaudeville hustlers, and the plot hangs, not on their professional rise, but on who will pair off with who.
One sister is imagined as fame-loving and ambitious while the other wants to be a homebody. There is a fantasy sequence in which they get to separate.
Their songs include I Want To Be Like Everyone Else, Who Will Love Me As I Am? and I Will Never Leave You.
You see what I mean. You find yourself writing each scene before it happens, and your response to each song is a resigned sense of inevitability rather than delight.
Meanwhile the plotting, dialogue and songs aren't particularly impressive in themselves. Trying to win the girls over to his ambitious plans, one of the guys says 'I'm very well connected,' getting the response 'So are we' – and that is the best joke in the show.
Oddly, the single best song, You Should Be Loved, is given to none of the four principals but to a supporting character, and the script is oddly coy about what it posits but can't bring itself to say out loud is a central plot complication – tiny spoiler alert – that at least one of the boys is gay.
Bill Russell's song lyrics can be guessed – there are no surprises – from the titles I've cited, and Henry Krieger's music includes echoes not just of the inevitable Sondheim and Lloyd Webber, but of Schonberg, Kander and Flaherty.
This modest-scale revival directed by Hannah Chissick conquers none of the problems in the text.
Its stars, Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford, sing beautifully but are more hobbled by the very limited characterisations than by the costumes that sew them together, and Dominic Hodson and Haydn Oakley are all-but-interchangeable as the two boys.
Chris Howell brings some energy to the one-dimensional villain of the sideshow owner and Jay Marsh some depth to the girls' friend and protector.
Neither director Chissick nor choreographer Matthew Cole can move people around the stage particularly smoothly or inventively, or keep production numbers from looking cluttered.
Like the Hilton Sisters themselves, Side Show was little more than a curiosity on Broadway in 1997, and has too little beyond curiosity to attract you to this revival.
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Review - Side Show - Southwark Playhouse 2016