Review: SIDE SHOW at the Southwark Playhouse

I've loved Side Show for a long time now so when I heard that the show would be making its UK premiere this fall at the Southwark Playhouse - one of the best up-and-coming Off-West End venues in town - I was elated. This beautiful show about the unique story of the conjoined Hilton Sisters is a show that isn't commercial at all, but is doing what theatre does best: making us feel something.

The story of Side Show follows the real life Hilton sisters Daisy (Louise Dearman) and Violet (Laura Pitt-Pulford) as they try to become mainstream celebrities. The show starts with the two of them being a part of a touring American Freak Show alongside favourites like the Bearded Lady and the Lizard Man and one day, a pair of young men come along and take interest in the girls. For the rest of the show, the two girls must fight against adversity to work out what they want in life, how they might end up finding love and how - ultimately - they can become stars in their own right. It's odd, but it's surprisingly relatable and heartfelt as well. The two girls have such unique personalities and you connect with either or both of them very quickly, yearning for their success from the offset and I'm sure Dearman and Pulford have a strong pull in that sense.

Louise Dearman, Laura Pitt-Pulford and the ensemble of Side Show

The two stars of the show dazzle as this unique duo. It's hard to look beyond the iconic Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley when thinking of these roles, but these two West End sensations do a very good job of coming close. Not only are their talents out of this world and their vocal performances breathtaking, but their chemistry and intimacy is truly beautiful. The two girls manage to work together perfectly and you get this feeling of both shared and separate personalities between the two of them; they're convincing as a pair of sisters who have literally never spent a moment of their lives apart and it's heartbreaking yet enchanting all at once. Dominic Hodson also makes a very charming breakout turn as Buddy Foster, the man of the show who you sympathise with most of all. The opposite can be said for Haydn Oakley's performance as Terry Connor who screams slimy from the top of the show - a feat that's successful throughout and confirmed not too shortly afterwards.

The design of the piece is equally as impressive; I'm always amazed by how well they utilise the small space of The Large at the Southwark Playhouse (for those who don't know, there's an even smaller theatre downstairs - a bit like a reverse Royal Court but smaller). The show's designer Takis (stylised takis) has done a fantastic job in designing and constructing a set that feels so much bigger than it is and the fact that it initially looks like a circus tent doesn't hinder its versatility whatsoever: Howard Hudson's intelligent lighting design makes the set look different no matter what the setting may be, while also making the floor space feel like it's constantly changing despite the lack of large props and moveable set pieces.

Christopher Howell as Sir during the opening number, "Come Look at the Freaks"

The stunning score by Henry Krieger - who also penned the iconic music for Dreamgirls, which will run at the same time as Side Show starting November 19th at the Savoy Theatre - has been given a new lease of life performed by the show's scaled-down band, with orchestrations by Simon Hale (who happens to be the father of a friend of mine). Hearing this music be given a new chance to shine is wonderful as the only other time the score's been majorly looked over was when the show was revived on Broadway a couple of years back. Krieger's score might not be jam packed with the most memorable or even most exciting of songs, but when he does it right, he really does it right. Dearman and Pulford's renditions of Who Will Love Me As I Am? and I Will Never Leave You are so powerful and emotional that I dare you to not cry during them. If anything, they are the most affecting and deeply moving moments of the show.

The full company of Side Show, currently playing at the Southwark Playhouse

Yes, Side Show has had a very sketchy and kooky history and it still feels like it in such a secluded and secretive location like the Southwark Playhouse. It is the ideal home to house the grungy cult classic and while it'll never be a commercial show by any stretch of the imagination, I'm so glad that producer Paul Taylor Mills had the guts to bring this show to an audience of avid fans that were here - ready and waiting - with open, welcoming arms.

Side Show runs at the Southwark Playhouse until December 3rd. Buy tickets here.

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