Mark Strong and Elizabeth Debicki, The Red Barn Side Show: Dominic Hodson, Louise Dearman, Laura Pitt-Pulford, Nuno Queimado. Photo by Pamela Raith

Side Show
Book and lyrics by Bill Russell; Music by Henry Krieger; Additional book material by Bill Condon
Southwark Playhouse, London
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Tickets & Information: southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Side Show - the Freaks

There's a wonderful symmetry to Bill Russell's book for this unique musical. When we first meet the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, real life characters who were virtual slaves in a wretched travelling Side Show, they dismiss themselves as "just freaks". "That's not the word I'd use" says the kindly Terry (Haydn Oakley) who rescues the pair and tries to instil some self-confidence and hope in them. He gives them a new life on the famous Orpheum vaudeville circuit, during dying days. Years later, just as they're on the cusp of a promised Hollywood career, they ask the Hollywood producer, who will be their next 'saviour', what their movie will be called. "Freaks" he replies as he jauntily walks off.

The book of this conventional show about an unconventional pair dares to tackle big themes such as the consequences of treating people as commodities. Being 'freaks' provided them with a living. Separation would have given them freedom but also penury as this was Depression-era America. It also, then, ran the real risk of killing them. The pair of course wouldn't have survived long in the outside world on their own, something their captor/master, 'Sir' (Christopher Howell), who rescued them from their 'Auntie' in England, points out when fighting a court battle to retain custody. They were always a commodity to be traded and even for Violet's wedding to a troubled hoofer Buddy (Dominic Hodson), Terry sold 60,000 tickets. The piece sensitively explores how you might have a private life when literally joined at the hip.

The strong score, from Dreamgirls' composer Henry Krieger, provides great opportunities for two top West End performers, Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford, to shine as these two, temperamentally very different women, one extrovert and one introvert. Vocally they're both standouts and in the show's climactic duet 'I Will Never Leave You' they deliver a masterclass in how to act through a song. The weaknesses in the piece: some clumsy recitative and the odd over- egged lyric, are redeemed by a gripping narrative which is stylishly honed here by director Hannah Chissick into a show which has real pace. The ensemble who begin and remain as the motley collection of side show freaks are also superbly polished. The designer Takis also works wonders in evoking the sadness of the fairground. He cleverly uses small crates which come together to form seats or beds or even mirrored dressing-up boxes.

The show has had two goes on Broadway, first in 1997 and then in 2014. Both times it was highly admired but, perhaps understandably, its quirkiness failed to draw big audiences. It did however make stars of two great performers: Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner. Southwark Playhouse is to be commended for giving it a London berth as it is a prime example of a slick, modern, Broadway treatment of some challenging but nevertheless compelling material.

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Side Show, Christopher Howell Side Show: Christopher Howell as Sir. Photo by Pamela Raith

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