First performed in 1997 – a couple of decades before The Greatest Showman earwormed its way into our lives – Side Show is based on the true story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. Like the recent monster hit movie about the life of PT Barnum, Bill Russell and Henry Krieger’s musical is a story about being different, but takes a rather darker and more grimly realistic approach than Jackman and co.
As the star attractions of a travelling show, the two sisters – conjoined at the hip – dream of stardom (Daisy) and romance (Violet). But while they experience brief glimpses of both, the two never get to live the one dream they share: that of a normal life. Instead they find themselves ruthlessly exploited by everyone around them, while they’re constantly torn between their desire to be alone and their fear of being apart.
Pint of Wine’s revival, at the suitably unconventional Bussey Building in Peckham, immerses us instantly in the sights, sounds and atmosphere of the side show. A lot of attention has clearly gone into the production’s design, with Lemington Ridley’s increasingly glamorous array of costumes plotting the sisters’ rise to fame, while a simple but effective set from Roberta Volpe proves you can do a lot with some wooden bleachers and a couple of screens.
The cast for Dom O’Hanlon’s production are generally strong, with stand-out vocal performances from Matthew James Nicholas as Terry, the twins’ manager, and Lauren Edwards as the sweet-natured Violet. She and Katie Beudert work well together, capturing in both performance and appearance the differences between Violet and Daisy’s personalities, and managing with ease the physical demands that come with being attached to another performer.
As Violet’s love interest Buddy, Barry O’Reilly excels in the dance numbers – including an impressive solo tap routine – and Alexander Bellinfantie is vocally strong as the sisters’ friend and protector Jake. Both seem less confident with their spoken dialogue, however, and we never quite get to the bottom of their character’s complex emotional struggles around their feelings for Violet.
Meanwhile the ensemble give an accomplished performance, particularly as the other side show acts, who step up to support their friends against their bullying adoptive father, Sir (Stephen Russell). In doing so each gives us a glimpse of their distinct personality, and a reminder that they’re not just attractions to be stared at, but real people who live, love and dream like everyone else. In fact, they’re considerably more human than the journalists, doctors and audiences – the other parts played by the ensemble – who view Daisy and Violet as little more than objects to be exploited.
The musical numbers are performed well, led by musical director John Reddel’s excellent band, with the opening number Come Look at the Freaks and Terry and Daisy’s Act 2 duet Private Conversation among several highlights. The vaudeville routines are great entertainment, and Act 1 comes to a poignant close with the cast’s heartfelt rendition of Who Will Love Me As I Am? This song in particular taps into an emotion we can all identify with – the need to be loved and accepted just as we are – but it also represents something Daisy and Violet seem destined never to have. The show’s sombre conclusion might be more realistic than most, but that doesn’t stop us from feeling a bit unsatisfied by the resignation with which the twins accept what lies ahead.
Pint of Wine’s debut musical theatre production, while not perfect, is a welcome opportunity for London audiences to discover a little-known show – as well as the true story of two fascinating women who, while certainly unique, in a lot of ways really were “just like everyone else”.
Side Show is at CLF Art Cafe in the Bussey Building, Peckham, until 13th October.
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