Southwark Playhouse, London – until 3 December 2016
“If you don’t say yes, I’ll have a heart attack that will kill us both”… In what I thought was a serendipitous move, I just finished watching American Horror Story: Freak Show before going to see Side Show, but it turned out to be most unhelpful. For not only the connection (seemingly by dress) of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton with the twin heads of Sarah Paulson’s Bette and Dot pales by comparison, but the darkness of representing a ‘freak’ show is far more suited to the horror genre than this rather anaemic musical.
With book and lyrics written by Bill Russell and music by Henry Krieger (whose Dreamgirls finally arrives in London next month), Side Show has managed two abortive runs on Broadway since premiering in 1997, so it makes sense for Southwark Playhouse to take it on with their sterling record for reinvigorating musical theatre of varying reputations. But despite director Hannah Chissick and producer Paul Taylor-Mills’ best efforts, I’m not sure it is rehabilitated.
The book is hampered by the Hiltons being real-life conjoined twins, their story deserving respect when what it really needs dramatically is an infusion of darkness, whether in comedy or freakiness. As it is, it just ends up rather po-faced as the girls battle exploitation from those who want to monetise their notoriety, and struggle to negotiate the practicalities of pursuing romantic lives (with different men) when the opportunities present themselves.
takis’ design looks impressive (though sightlines are problematic on the sides), Jo Cichonska’s musical direction makes the most of a score that I found disappointingly bland, and the cast are certainly committed. Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford impress as the twins, and Christopher Howell, Haydn Oakley, Dominic Hodson and Jay Marsh shine as the men who circle them. But it still feels that it is Side Show as the main attraction that is problematic.