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Review: Side Show (Southwark Playhouse)

The 1997 musical finally receives its London premiere starring Laura Pitt-Pulford and Louise Dearman

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Despite the dubious distinction of having flopped on Broadway not once but twice, Side Show is, for musical theatre aficionados, one of the most eagerly awaited London premieres in years. This is undoubtedly due to the soaring, powerfully melodic score by Henry (Dreamgirls) Krieger and Bill Russell, plus the fact that in Daisy and Violet Hilton - real life conjoined twins who had a vaudeville career before ending up in 1930s Hollywood exploitation films - it offers a pair of meaty, belty female lead roles the like of which is seldom seen outside Evita and Wicked in the modern musical canon.

In performance, the show proves to be a heartbreaker in more ways than one: the extraordinary poignancy of the girls' situation, the disturbing way they were manipulated, and the effect their "otherness" had on the people around them, is examined more effectively in Russell's sensitive lyrics than in his somewhat plodding book, which doesn't really build up a dramatic head of steam until well into the second half. The twins' big cri de cœur duets "Who Will Love Me As I Am" and "I Will Never Leave You" have justly become standards and satisfyingly bring down the house here, thanks to the powerhouse performances of Louise Dearman (probably the only person to have actually played all three leads in Wicked and Evita) and Laura Pitt-Pulford. They are an unqualified sensation.

This staging uses the substantial rewrites that were put in for the 2014 Broadway revised version, which gives the twins more of a backstory but still struggles to make fully fleshed characters out of the other leading protagonists. While that proves surprisingly easy to overlook once the gorgeous score kicks back in, it doesn't give the cast quite enough to work with in order to build compelling, relatable characters.

The staggeringly ambiguous and cynical finale - which sees the more delicate of the twins enter into a sham marriage purely as a publicity stunt to kickstart the girls' movie career - is worthy of Kander and Ebb at their most mordant even as the gloriously anthemic music brings a lump to the throat: it is simultaneously chilling and exhilarating.

There's masses to enjoy in Hannah Chissick's frequently dazzling production, although it is unfortunate that much of the show has been directed to the middle of the auditorium: it looks as though it was blocked for a proscenium arch, rather an open stage. But there are so many other things absolutely right here: the seven strong chorus of human oddities is terrific, singing and executing Matthew Cole's muscular choreography magnificently. Simon Hale's expertly pared-down orchestrations sound wonderfully full and lavish and Howard Hudson's evocative lighting is truly a thing of beauty. The set by takis provides a fairground environment that feels simultaneously tawdry and glamorous.

Haydn Oakley gives a very fine performance as their cynical manager and Dominic Hodson is spot on as a well meaning but self deceiving song-and-dance man troubled by feelings and a situation he doesn't fully understand.

But any version of this troubled, ambitious, undeniably spellbinding piece stands and falls by the central casting of the Hilton twins and Chissick and casting director Will Burton have got this absolutely right: Dearman, charismatic and sassy as ambitious Daisy, and Pitt-Pulford, heartbreakingly vulnerable as sweet Violet, simply could not be bettered. Full of pathos and fire, they entirely convince as sisters with markedly different personalities, and prove as impressive dramatically as they are thrilling vocally. They are a triumph.

Side Show runs at Southwark Playhouse until 3 December.