Dom O’Halon’s musical Side Show pays homage to the Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, staging the tumultuous story of their upbringing, followed by the gloomy realities of celebratory status. The twins, conjoined at the hip, were exhibited in sideshows as children and came to fame in the 1920s in Todd Browning’s heavily censored and controversial film Freaks. Voicing their oppressive existence within the prejudice of a voyeuristic 1930s America, the narrative of the play has strong theatrical potential: unfortunately, this potential remains unexploited.
Lauren Edwards and Katie Beudert play the Hilton twins in a way that heightens their otherness, rather than rendering them personable and humanistic. This sort of goes against the aim of the performance, which O’Halon says is to teach “understanding”. At times the emotional weight of the subject is neglected in favour of melodramatic exclamations, lacking the sensitivity needed for the performance to be convincing
There are elements of the play, however, that do succeed in conveying the subtleties of the story. As the audience take their seats they are greeted by the cast-cum-audience who sit opposite, seated silently on stalls concealed by an opaque screen that advertises the show. This conjuring of a mirror image highlights the grotesque fetishisation that the “freaks” went through back in early twentieth century America. The “freak show ensemble” accompanying the Hilton twins is composed of the three-legged man, the half-man-half-woman, the bearded lady, the tattoo girl and the reptile man to name a few. Matthew James Nicholas plays their theatrical director with abusive sharpness, branding them his “freak show”; he jumps on any opportunity to commodify the ensemble, swiftly translating their personalities into profit. The “freaks” play on this through self-parody, which adds an air of comicality whilst slightly trivialising the issue.
The musical soundscape of the play, cultivated by Dreamgirls’s Henry Krieger, sustains the energy, allows attention to linger on moments of melancholy, as well as moments of celebration. Choreographer Becky East does a good job of creating dynamic ensemble dances, although there are a few too many jazz hands. The play’s two-hour time frame ever so slightly elongates the tale, but does contributes to the monumentality of this spectacle.
Side Show is playing at Bussey Building until 13 October. For further information and tickets, click here.