Based vaguely on the true story of British-born conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, vaudeville performers of the 1920s and 1930s, Side Show isn’t your average, jaunty musical. Instead it’s the story of two women with very different inner lives, forever joined, whose hopes and dreams are subsumed by the other, their individual potential never to be fulfilled.
Violet wants a home, a husband, a ‘normal’ life, Daisy desires fame, fortune and the bright lights of the Orpheum circuit. Those whose care they’re in, their only aim – to make as much money as possible exploiting them. Would-be impresarios Terry and Buddy enter their lives, to, on the surface, help the twins escape their side show lives, only to in turn exploit them for their own ends.
The cast of self-proclaimed ‘freaks’ who populate the side show include a bearded lady, the Cannibal King, a human pincushion and a lizard man. Played here by a cast of actor/musicians in minimal costume/makeup.
Having the distinction of having failed twice on Broadway, this 1997 musical is rarely seen and it is easy to see why. The faults lie entirely with the writing and not the performers.
Act One plods and it takes until well in to act two for it to hit any kind of dramatic stride. It barely scratches below the surface of these complex women’s lives. There’s a lack in variation in tone, too many songs and a discomfort at the subject matter that doesn’t sit well with the modern psyche. The book is quite frankly, badly written and the lyrics tediously bombastic.
What is a winner is the cast. Despite fighting with an overly loud band (that sounded frequently out of tune) and questionable acoustics (although in a hugely atmospheric venue) that deadened the lyrics almost entirely, the cast gamely fight on. Their quality never in question. On the occasions they managed to break through the cacophony they are sublime. Their harmonies glorious. Grace Galloway is magnetic as twin Daisy, overshadowing the less effusive (as her character dictates) Violet from Emma Harding. Callum Marshall’s (Sir) vocals are unfortunately drowned out by the band and the lyrics are lost in the important first few songs that establish the plot. None of this is Marshall’s fault as he is visibly projecting. The ensemble are talented, but it sounds as if musicianship is not their forte and the playing space is sprawling (long and narrow) leading to the audience’s focus dancing all over the room uncomfortably.
A brave attempt but it doesn’t feel fully thought through by the production team. What seems like a match made in heaven – unusual, atmospheric venue and a musical set in the 20s/30s about side-show freaks – doesn’t work in reality. There are practicalities that need to be thought out when you present to an audience. Their viewing experience is paramount. If the sound is distorted by the venue and the staging renders watching it a physical feat, you are doing a disservice to your viewers and also your actors, whose undeniable talent is masked through no fault of their own. All of this added to the fact that Side Show just isn’t a very good show, makes this a rare misstep from RCS.
Performances at West Brewery until 23rd May 2018.