Last week we saw SIDE SHOW, the latest in the commercially-risky musicals that have become the forté of the Southwark Playhouse and while enjoyable - particularly the two leading performances - there is one rather large elephant in the room. Balanced on an inflatable ball. And twirling a hoop with it's trunk.
ALLEGRO, THE TOXIC AVENGER, XANADU, GRAND HOTEL, GREY GARDENS and TITANIC are the six musicals we have seen there and they all share an air of risk which might give a West End producer pause. While they all have potential selling-points: Rogers & Hammerstein, an ELO juke-box musical, known titles thanks to films, and award-winning and nominated Broadway scores; none of them are obvious hits and that's where the Southwark steps in...
...and they don't come any riskier than the musical SIDE SHOW, with lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Henry Krieger. It is based on the real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hinton who were a side show and vaudeville attraction in the 1930s. Now... can't you see THAT on Shaftesbury Avenue? The show first opened on Broadway in 1997 and, although it received good reviews and some devoted fans, it closed less than three months later.
Fast forward nine years to the filming of DREAMGIRLS and director Bill Condon told composer Krieger that he was also a fan of SIDE SHOW and would like to have a go at reshaping Russell's book. After a revision with songs being dropped or re-shaped, Condon also directed this revival on Broadway in late 2014. Again the reviews were very positive... but it closed after seven weeks!
SIDE SHOW is a show the critics admire but it cannot find an audience - will London be different? I guess it helps that the Southwark Playhouse production is only running for two months but the night we went it wasn't sold out and despite committed performances and a solid production from director Hannah Chissick, the show is compromised by a frustrating book - the usual culprit when a show under-performs.
Russell and Condon's book aims to show us that the sisters were constantly taken advantage of and the musical ends with double betrayal in their personal and professional lives but even a cursory look at their real story shows that the writers have played fast and loose with them too. First off, the twins were born and lived in Brighton until they were 8 so why have them played as American?
As the book suggests the sisters were controlled by a cruel 'owner' - the real-life case was even more bizarre than the musical suggests - but has them 'rescued' by two men who see them as their own meal-tickets, but these characters are so sketchily-drawn that at times it's hard to understand silly things like motivation or depth.
One of these characters is a gay dancer but his sexuality is so clumsily referenced you would think the book was written in the 1940s. In reality, the sisters both married gay men at separate times but this all happened after the events of the musical, which culminates with the sisters belting out their killer 11 o'clock number "I Will Never Leave You" before setting off to Hollywood to co-star in Todd Browning's film FREAKS. The book lamely suggests that this also exploited the girls but I doubt if they were ever under any illusions that they were going to be co-starring with Fred Astaire.
So the show ends in a vaguely upbeat way with the sisters setting out on their own to L.A. But Russell and Condon are guilty of putting a Hollywood ending to the sisters' story which ended in a way that makes FREAKS look like a Disney film. After 19 years, they made a second film, a b-movie called CHAINED FOR LIFE. They were reduced again to doing exploitative personal appearances until 1961 when their manager left them destitute in Charlotte, North Carolina and they had to find work in a grocery store to make ends meet (no pun intended).
But life had one more cruel trick to play: in January 1969 their boss alerted the police that they had not come to work but they were found dead, victims of the American Hong Kong flu epidemic. A gruesome fact was later revealed that Daisy died first, Violet dying a few days later. I suppose we should be grateful Condon and Russell stopped short of ending the show with Violet singing "I Will Never Leave You" to her dead sister. but to neglect the tragedy of the sisters' lives feels like yet another betrayal - it's like doing a musical of Anne Frank and ending it with her listening to the D-Day landings.
But enough of reality, what about the show? As I said Hannah Chissick drives her production on with a good momentum, it's only after you realize the book's many weaknesses. She has elicited very fine performances from her two lead actresses: Louise Dearman makes Daisy the more dominant and ambitious sister while Laura Pitt-Pulford is a touching Violet, shy and showing the psychological wounds of her deprived upbringing. Sadly Hannah Chissick should have found some way of possibly binding her two actresses physically together as more often than not it looked like they were only co-joined because they were wearing the same dress.
Jay Marsh is very good as Jake, a fake 'freak' in the side show who
tries to protect the girls from all troubles but the rest of the cast
barely make an impression. Takis' standing set of the tawdry funfairs that the sisters' knew so well was also very atmospheric and evocative as was Howard Hudson's lighting design.
What makes the musical memorable is Henry Krieger's score although frustratingly Bill Russell's lyrics never raise above the serviceable. Krieger's music however is evocative: the opening number "Come Look At The Freaks" has a creepy spookiness and his pastiche songs for the sisters' onstage routines are very good. As with his titanic "And I Tell You I'm Not Going" from DREAMGIRLS, here he delivers with the climactic "I Will Never Leave You" which has been rattling about my head ever since. As I said, it's a shame that Russell's lyrics sound so trite against his music.
It is thanks to the score that SIDE SHOW has built up a cult following and I can imagine that growing from it's London production - it's just a shame that the book is more sawdust than tinsel. However, the production itself can be seen as yet another success for the Southwark Playhouse.