Review: Side Show at the CLF Art Cafe

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.

Photo credit: Michael Smith

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.

Photo credit: Michael Smith

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”.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Dare Devil Rides to Jarama at the Bussey Building

In 1936, Clem Beckett, a young speedway rider from Manchester, travelled to Spain as a volunteer with the International Brigades. Joining the fight against Franco’s Nationalists, Clem and his friend Chris Caudwell tragically lost their lives in the Battle of Jarama.

That’s the end of the story. But Neil Gore’s Dare Devil Rides to Jarama begins much earlier, in 1929, introducing us to a charming, confident young man on the brink of an impressive sporting career. This passion leads him into politics, speaking out against the exploitation of young riders and joining the Manchester Young Communist League. As the years pass, Clem becomes increasingly involved in the fight against fascism at home in Britain – and when the Spanish Civil War breaks out in 1936, he doesn’t hesitate to leave behind his home, career and new wife to go and fight for his beliefs.

It’s a sobering tale, but told with an infectious charm and humour that means we come to really care for the characters. David Heywood oozes charisma as Clem, in a passionate performance that sees him mature before our eyes from cocky stunt rider, risking his life for thrills, to grim soldier taking on the dark forces of fascism. Alongside him, Neil Gore is a joy to watch as he fills all the other roles, from grumpy bosses to drunken Scotsmen, and – most importantly – the writer and intellectual Chris Caudwell. His unlikely friendship with Clem is the beating heart of Act 2, with each helping the other in moments of doubt, and the banter and political discourse between them is as entertaining as it is fascinating.

Photo credit: Daniella Beattie
Photo credit: Daniella Beattie

Neil Gore’s script brings together a delicious mixture of poetry, prose and music. The subject matter – with its talk of bikes, mechanics and politics – could easily have been a bit on the dry side, but the variety of styles and the engaging characters who tell the story constantly keep it lively and entertaining. The play is also, in places, very funny, with an audience participation element that sees us become part of the crowd roaring (and rattling…) Clem down the track, enthusiastically booing Oswald Mosley off the stage, and joining in with folk musician John Kirkpatrick’s melodic and catchy songs.

Though the set is intricate in design, with wooden panels that fold away to take us from the bike tracks of Manchester to the rainy streets of London (then undergoing a more dramatic transformation during the interval to shift the action to Spain), Louise Townsend’s direction has a simple charm that’s incredibly appealing. Hanging a sign that says Albacete means we’re in Albacete, and the cast of two do everything – acting, singing, operating the lights (stage and house) and even greeting and directing the audience at the door. This gives the production an intimate, slightly unpolished feel, and as a result the play’s message has far more impact than any fancy effects could provide.

Photo credit: Daniella Beattie

Dare Devil Ride to Jarama was commissioned by the International Brigades Memorial Trust as a way to keep the memory alive of the volunteers who gave their lives fighting in Spain. But there’s something chillingly current about it as well; it’s difficult not to draw uncomfortable comparisons with the political situation across Europe – and beyond – right now. There might not be a need for us to physically go to war; it might not carry the same risk, but there’s still, and probably always be, a need for us to speak out and take a stand against fascism in all its forms. Neil Gore’s play honours the memory of Clem, Chris and all the volunteers of the International Brigades, by encouraging a new generation to follow their example. There’s no greater tribute than that.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉