★★½☆☆ Musical itself is weak but fabulous (conjoined) co-stars are well worth seeing.

Broadway musical Side Show is loosely based on the true story of conjoined English twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, best known for their appearance in the cult 1932 film Freaks. Born in Brighton in 1908, their horrified mother would have nothing to do with them so the midwife Mary Hilton took them in and started exhibiting them in the back room of her pub.

Laura Bunting as Daisy and Kerrie Anne Greenland as Violet. Photo by Kurt Sneddon

From there, Hilton toured the twins around the UK. They even came to Australia in 1913, appearing at Melbourne’s Luna Park. After Hilton’s death Myer Myers (or Sir) took over their management, touring them around America where they became stars of the vaudeville circuit in the 1930s. Daisy (who had a child in 1936, which she promptly put up for adoption) died in 1968 of Hong Kong flu but Violet made no attempt to call for help, choosing to die as well, which she did a few days later.

It’s potentially fascinating material to explore, but Side Show, which focusses on the twins’ rise to stardom and their yearning for happiness and love, ends up being a fairly run-of-the-mill musical with few surprises along the way.

With music by Henry Krieger (Dreamgirls) and book and lyrics by Bill Russell, the show debuted on Broadway in October 1997 and though it developed something of a cult following, it closed after just 91 performances. It was subsequently reworked for a 2014 Broadway revival, with some songs removed and others added. The book was also revised but despite strong reviews the show again failed to win public support, lasting just seven weeks.

It is that revised 2014 version that the Hayes Theatre Co is staging in Sydney for the show’s Australian premiere. Directed by Richard Carroll on a simple but effective set by Lauren Peters, with stunning costumes (particularly for the twins) by Angela White, it’s a well-staged production given the limits of the tiny space. However, it doesn’t manage to transcend the show’s problems – notably a fairly perfunctory book that tends to tell you things rather than dramatise them in any real depth, and lyrics that all too often feel as if they are more concerned with clever rhymes than with emotional or psychological insight. Moments that should pack a punch emotionally don’t – despite lovely performances by Laura Bunting and Kerrie Anne Greenland as Daisy and Violet. The melodic score includes some clever pastiches of vaudeville songs but it’s only the twins’ two well-known power ballads Who Will Love Me As I Am? and I Will Never Leave You that truly soar.

Joshua Mulheran, Laura Bunting, Kerrie Anne Greenland and Gabriel Brown. Photo by Kurt Sneddon

The musical opens at a seedy side show where the “freaks” are initially seen as shadows before appearing in the flesh. The arrival of an ambitious vaudeville talent scout Terry (Daniel Belle) and his sidekick Buddy (Gabriel Brown), who is a choreographer, triggers a flashback showing where the twins came from. How much of what is being exhibited at the side show has been faked for gullible audiences isn’t clear in Carroll’s staging and we don’t get a strong sense of how grim the twins’ upbringing has been. Nor does the sense of a supportive misfit family emerge very strongly. But as the twins start to find stardom, the production lifts.

At the heart of the production, Bunting and Greenland are both fabulous. They look like twins, move as if they have always been forced to live side by side, and sing superbly, their voices harmonising well. Though literally joined at the hip, the twins are depicted as having very different personalities, though neither character extends beyond stereotype: Daisy wants fortune and fame; Violet longs to be lost in a crowd rather than always stared at, and for domestic happiness.

The idea of two complete individuals locked together is an interesting one. The show doesn’t develop this in any depth but Bunting and Greenland do all they can with the material they are given, convincingly portraying sisters who are devoted to each other – and unsure whether they really want to be separated – while remaining distinctively themselves.

Berynn Schwerdt and the company. Photo by Kurt Sneddon

The acting and singing across the supporting cast is somewhat uneven. Belle unleashes a rich tenor but neither he nor Brown have the acting chops to bring their dialogue scenes to convincing life. Berynn Schwerdt who plays Sir, the unscrupulous side show manager, who opens the show with the (fairly long) song Come Look at the Freaks is a stronger actor than singer, while Hannah Waterman turns in a nice cameo as the bearded lady and the twins’ malign auntie. As the twins’ devoted protector Jake, the former “cannibal king” from the side show, Timothy Springs is a warm but somewhat impassive presence.

There are ideas briefly alluded to or hinted at in the book, which Carroll’s cast don’t manage to amplify. The fact that Jake, who loves Violet, is black, and Buddy, who marries Violet, is (we infer from a passing comment) gay makes both of them misfits in that day and age, akin in some ways to the twins. But this rather comes out of nowhere and though Carroll’s production doesn’t solve such things, the fault is very much with the show itself.

At the end of the day Side Show is not a great musical. It should engage us emotionally; instead we watch dispassionately. However, it’s a solid, well-staged production and the terrific performances by Bunting and Greenland are well worth a look.

Side Show runs at the Hayes Theatre Co until October 16.


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