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Side Show review at Southwark Playhouse, London – ‘stunning and stirring’

Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford in Side Show Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Tristram KEnton
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Side Show is an original musical that has the rare distinction of failing not once but twice on Broadway. The original 1997 production ran for just 91 performances, and a more recent attempt to give it another life in 2014 ran for an even shorter 56 performances. Perhaps it was just too much to ask Broadway audiences to pay top dollar to “Come look at the freaks/ Come gape at the geeks/ Come examine these aberrations/ Their malformations/ Grotesque physiques.”

Receiving its British premiere in a much smaller production at Southwark Playhouse, Side Show casts a darkly insinuating and deeply compelling spell. Based on the true story of the Hilton Sisters – Daisy and Violet, a pair of conjoined Brighton-born twins who became a vaudeville sensation in 1920s and 1930s America – it’s a show that demonstrates the morbid fascination they exerted, but it’s also about a very human struggle for identity and individuality.

Hannah Chissick’s production doesn’t stint on putting them at the centre of a very vividly realised freak show. There is great make-up and prosthetics by Natasha Lawes, but also, thanks to fine-tuned performances from Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford, kitted out in matching costumes by Takis, they are also brought to heartbreaking life.

Both are among our foremost singing actors. Dearman has an uncanny ability to sound like Streisand, and Pitt-Pulford has a gorgeous sensitivity. But this is very much a team effort, and around them there is a first-rate cast that includes Dominic Hudson and Haydn Oakley who become suitors to them, and Jay Marsh as a loyal protector from a fairground show that they leave.

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Stunning, stirring musical about a quest for individuality