Did you ever hear the story of two young twins? As like each other as two new pins … oh, hang on, that’s Blood Brothers. What about sisters who became child stars on the Orpheum circuit? June and Louise in Gypsy. Vaudevillians who made a double act out of their shared misfortunes – Roxie and Velma in Chicago. A circus owner who exhibited deformed human beings – Barnum.

I could go on … but so, unfortunately, can Bill Russell and Henry Krieger, authors of SideShow who set out with the bravest of motives to tell the true story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, Brighton-born twins conjoined ‘pygopagi’ (at the buttocks) who were what we would now call trafficked first to Australia then as freak show exhibits in America before finding fame as stage artistes – Bob Hope was an early dance partner – and featuring in Tod Browning’s 1932 MGM movie Freaks.

I can’t resist quoting RuPaul’s joke on Drag Race about two old hookers who were joined at the vagina and when their career was over had to look for new openings …

Daisy and Violet’s true confessions make more shocking reading than anything covered in the musical: they each married a gay man – one for ten years, one for ten days – and were allegedly nymphomaniacs entertaining two or three gentleman callers a night.  No wonder the book writer and lyricist skipped that part.

Sometimes good stories are not best served by being submerged under musical theatre anthems: despite a lush and romantic score, Ragtime struggles to chronicle the history of the early 20th century America with too many strands to its stories, although its finessed actor-musician revival at Charing Cross Theatre outshines this SideShow at Southwark.

Which is a pity, because it’s rare for me to have purchased tickets for a musical six months ahead of its opening, such was the eager anticipation in London for this premiere of a twice-flopped Broadway show.

It’s hard to know how to compensate for the show’s structural weaknesses and make it more saleable apart from maybe spending more and gluing a couple of Strallens together.

The cast are excellent and work incredibly hard – Laura Pitt-Pulford is the more lyrically lovely of the two sisters, her voice delicately colouring both the big numbers on which the show stands – not surprisingly they’re duets – ‘Who Will Love Me as I Am’ and ‘I Will Never Leave You’.  She’s vocally matched by Louise Dearman as the sassier sister Daisy and pairs nicely with Haydn Oakley as the young impresario who isn’t quite as squeaky clean as he first seems. Oakley and Pitt-Pulford played a convincing couple in The Smallest Show On Earth, and both deserve a bigger West End stage, although Pitt-Pulford will be displaying her oranges as Nell Gwynn in Emma Rice’s final season at the Globe next summer. Jay Marsh exhibits a lush baritone as the sisters’ protective friend but his character’s so thinly scripted he barely gets a chance to project it.

Apart from the score both Hannah Chissick’s direction and Matthew Cole’s choreography sometimes derive too closely from other, better musicals – the scene with raincoated reporters baying for a story is lifted wholesale from Chicago.

Aside from a tap number ‘One Plus One Equals Three’ shamelessly cloned from ‘Two Ladies’ in Cabaret, the second act edges further into Chicago territory with a manipulated court case – at ‘where will we find a hotshot lawyer’ I’m sure someone in the audience whispered ‘call Billy Flynn’ – but with more dramatic tension and with a less than happy ending, it’s here you get the sense of how good and original Side Show could be.

In real life, the sisters stood three-quarters on to each other, facing different directions – this would have worked fine in the thrust staging at Southwark, but they are instead joined only at the frock. With safety pins.  In this, as in some other aspects, I’d have liked a tighter production.

But do go. With a top price of only £25 you can enjoy it for the rare opportunity to see a theatrical curio. But by shining a light on its flaws, this enthusiastic production may have sabotaged Side Show‘s chances of a West End revival.


until 3 December