Side Show, CLF Art Cafe

Review by Melinda Haunton

How would you like to sit front row in a West End musical, at a fifth of the price? Because that’s very much what you’ll get if you slip along to Side Show. This revived once-Broadway musical fits into the petite venue at Peckham’s Bussey Building like an elephant fits into a diamond slipper: bursting, but fabulous.

The story of the (entirely real) conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, and their journey from freak show to fame, packs an emotional punch and demands we see past first impressions. Wistful musical numbers such as ‘Like Everyone Else’ and ‘Typical Girls Next Door’ give us a vivid picture of the twins’ plight, without turning mawkish. When the various romantic and professional tribulations of their lives finally make the twins fall out, there’s a truly vicious edge to their reprise of ‘Stuck With You’. The many twists of the final denouement may be too torturous for your taste, but the closing ‘I Will Never Leave You’ is properly triumphant. These women have agency, together and as individuals. They demand our respect.

This production ensures the twins are well drawn from the start, unquestionably two very distinct people despite being joined at the hip. Katie Beudert does ambitious, ballsy Daisy a treat – refusing to be bowed down and sparkling of wit in the direst of dilemmas. At her side, Lauren Edwards as shy Violet will break your heart, her expressive, unsure face a focus that undercuts her twin’s daring. If she’s never quite dragged along by Daisy, there’s a wonderful sense that Violet is half a lagging pace behind. We are never going to forget that their lives are complex and full of compromise.

They are supported by a full cast of love interests, evil managers, and a community of loving freaks (their word). I enjoyed the simple set device, bleachers and signs that split down the middle to create different effects, constantly separating in the way the twins never can. The bare concrete of the venue is clothed in red and white stripes, giving instant circus colour when you step into the performance space. The brisk choreography in the confined area gives plenty of energy, and only a few collisions (there is a really unfortunate pillar front and centre, but the blocking manages this well). Costumes are lavish: I lost count of the twins’ changes at outfit eight, and the rest of the ensemble isn’t very far behind. Shoestring production, this is not, even if the cast: audience ratio can’t be much below 1:3.

It’s not perfect. I thought the book funnier than the cast allowed it – some potential laugh lines were rather crashed. The entire cast is miked, and the sound experience is pretty overwhelming without a larger audience to absorb some of the volume. But that makes for a more immersive experience, right in your face, right in your ears. Side Show is full on and unashamed. Just right for the Hiltons.

Side Show is at the CLF Art Café, Bussey Building, Peckham Rye, until 13 October. Tickets £18

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