Bill Russell and Henry Krieger’s Side Show has had two Broadway outings, neither lasting long on the Great White Way; this Southwark Playhouse production marks the show’s UK premiere and brings together two of the biggest musical theatre names around in the form of Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford.

The show follows the story of real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, who became music hall and film stars in the 1920s-30s. Russell’s narrative sees them escape a seedy side-show where they are mistreated by ‘Sir’ (Chris Howell), set to a backdrop of stardom, love and scandal in New York.

On entering the auditorium, the set is bathed in a warm glow as the design by performance designer takis encompasses golden pipes and staircases that evoke the organs and carousels of a traditional fairground. Yet as the cast break out into the opening number ‘Come Look at the Freaks’, it’s clear that the mood is rather darker and harsher than it may first appear.

The raucous ensemble – Lizard Man, Half Man Half Woman, Human Pin Cushion and more – are clad in a series of fantastic costumes (all credit to the creative wardrobe team); combined with their strong vocals and choreographer Matthew Cole’s use of space, with cast members popping up out of the audience unexpectedly, the opening scene is a powerful injection of energy. Indeed, the eccentric side-show characters are sorely missed during their absence for the most part of Act II. However, despite the cast’s energy and impressive design work, Russell’s book is sluggish and lacks dramatic momentum. The time before Daisy and Violet’s career is launched drags on through flashbacks and court cases and there’s little sense of their story or characters bring developed. The musical numbers are performed with gusto by all the cast, but merge into each other without much time for the audience to absorb each melody.

Having said this, things are propelled forward more successfully at the end of Act I and into Act II. Here the differences in the two girls’ personalities are explored more effectively, with Dearman displaying delightful sass and confidence as Louise, and Pitt-Pulford gaining more sympathy for her quieter and more sensitive Violet. The moments when Pitt-Pulford’s powerful vocals burst out of Daisy’s shy demeanour are an absolute joy.

There is solid support from Haydn Oakley, who does well with the frustratingly unlikeable Terry, from Dominic Hudson as the well-meaning Buddy and particularly from Jay Marsh as the ever-loyal Jake. Marsh has a wonderfully compelling and warm voice, shown in numbers such as ‘You Should Be Loved’ – I only wish there were more opportunities for his voice to be showcased.

From listlessness in the earlier scenes, Russell’s book suddenly rushes through the climactic moments with a rather muddled array of confessions, decisions, exits and entrances. In the end, the sisters’ story comes to a conclusion that is much more bitter than sweet, and it’s fitting that the show ends with the pair walking tall together against the world after manipulation and maltreatment from so many different sides.

Side Show comes to life at the Southwark Playhouse with a very talented and committed cast and creative team, and it’s just about enough to paper over the cracks in the book. Ultimately, this is a show that will be won or lost on its lead actresses and the production has certainly gained a winning hand in the casting of Dearman and Pitt-Pulford. They carry the show with their humour, charm and nuance, and the most glorious moments are in their heartfelt duets, with the climactic performance of ‘I Will Never Leave You’ a definite highlight. This is one worth seeing for its excellent cast and production values if not its core content.

Side Show is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until December 3.

Photo: Pamela Raith