Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 play, The Elephant Man, detailing Joseph Merrick’s wish to be treated as a ‘normal’ member of society, after being discovered in a freak show where he was abused by his captor, is considered a classic. This touching exploration of the mind of a man blighted by his physical disfigurement went on to win the 1979 Tony Award on Broadway for best new play.
In fact, the idea of treating such a subject as a musical was considered so crass, objectionable, and tasteless that it was lampooned to great success in the 1989 Jeff Goldblum movie, The Tall Guy.
Side Show, the crass, objectionable, and tasteless double Broadway flop (opening in 1997 and 2014 with both productions managing fewer than 200 performances between them) which details the wish of a pair of conjoined twins to be treated as ‘normal’ members of society, after being discovered in a freak show where they were abused by their captor, would ‘possibly’ make a good play – in the right hands.
Sadly for all concerned those hands belong neither to bookwriter, Bill Russell, lyricist, Henry Krieger, nor Bill Condon, who is credited with ‘additional book material’, so it really is a mystery why, hot on the heels of their critically acclaimed, touching and above all – tuneful Grey Gardens, Southwark Playhouse thought this work had the merit to warrant a production at all.
The show is about the rise to fame in America of the real life, Brighton-born, Daisy and Violet Hilton who – according to Wikipedia – ‘were born joined by their hips and buttocks, shared blood circulation and were fused at the pelvis but shared no major organs’.
With a show about a pair of conjoined twins, you can’t really get over the problem of their being inseparable – not that this worries the writers who prize them apart for a dream sequence in act two, only then to stick ‘em back together again for the exigencies of the gruel-thin plot. Structurally this show is a dog.
This isn’t the worst of the problems with the book though: it’s been lumbered with ‘The Musical Theatre Kiss of Death’ by being about a pair of almost completely passive characters who, to be honest, don’t have any great need or want, the only interesting about them being their physical affliction. Call me a curmudgeon, but I just don’t think that’s something to be paraded in song.
Other than that there’s nothing to make you care about what happens to them, or their rather compliant and pedestrian tale of exploitation – one slave-driving, exploitative promoter is replaced by a guy who wants to put them in vaudeville and make them famous, but actually he turns out to be, if anything, even more exploitative than the first.
As if to add insult to injury Harvey Krieger’s score, for all it’s bluster, is as unmemorable as that of his ‘hit’ Dreamgirls which will be opening at The Savoy in November a mere 35 years since it’s Broadway debut…
I’ll be charitable and say the writers pay serious ‘homage’ to a number of other works from the cannon, though this is so blatant in some places that you just want to stand up and shout ‘rip-off merchant!’ Anyone even remotely acquainted with Cabaret, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Chicago (that one even takes place IN CHICAGO!), and a raft of others will know what I mean.
The only saving grace of the evening is the cast headed by Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford as the joined-somewhere-vaguely-by-frock twins who are glorious, making even this second-rate material sound entertaining.
The band too, hidden I think somewhere behind the rather out of period set, sound great for a septet though, like the voices, are over-amplified at times.
Would I recommend this show? No. Go if you’re a fan of the cast and treat it as a concert, but if you’re a fan of the musical theatre find something useful to do with your evening.