THE OLD Joint Stock’s resident company always offer their audience something different and ‘Side Show’ by Bill Russell and Henry Krieger is certainly no exception.
The original ran for just 91 performances on Broadway when it premiered in 1997. It fared only slightly better in its 2014 rewrite and revival when despite positive reviews it closed after just seven weeks.
The obvious question is why? Despite that question mark, this production by the highly talented director Karl Steele succeeds on many levels. Firstly, because he has chosen to convert the entire theatre into the Side Show or Freak Show, where we the audience are voyeurs just like our ancestors were back in the first half of the 20th century when people paid to laugh and scream at those unfortunates born with deformities. ‘Steele’ invites us into the nightmarish world he has created; a pre-show experience before it becomes a musical and this is live and not some Channel Four documentary watched from the comfort of a living room.
The theatre resides on the top floor of the Old Joint Stock pub and restaurant in Temple Street Birmingham. To reach it you have to ascend several flights of old fashioned stairs – adorning the walls are portraits of the freaks we are going to see perform. When the auditorium is reached it is like entering a circus tent and a chalkboard time chart at the check in desk listing what freak is on when all adds to the illusion.
Inside, the audience is seated on all four walls with a smaller tent and mini stage central to the back wall. There are podiums intermingled throughout the audience on which freaks gyrate like grotesque night club dancers in some post-apocalyptic world. Next to me was a three legged girl (Lizzie Robins), on others, a bearded lady (Vicky Addis), a tattooed lady (Sarah Haines), a very strange person in black and white dungarees and a shaven head save for a carrot top bun –referred to as ‘(Geek’ (Maisie-Kate Robertson), a half man/half woman (Bea Coleman), an armless ‘Venus de Milo’ (Jessica Birtwistle), a bone bedecked Cannibal King (a charismatic Patison Harrigan), Dog Boy (Jaoash Musunio) and a dusky Fortune teller who can rival the guitarist from Kiss for the length of the thrust of her tongue (Alanna Boden).
The tension is broken only when the band under the musical direction of Nick Allen strike up and the cast literally throw themselves from the podiums into the opening number ‘Come see the Freaks’ where Sir (Simon Peacock) bangs his cane and conducts his bizarre circus. As the number reaches its climax the curtains on the small stage are peeled back to reveal our headliners, the conjoined Hilton Sisters, Daisy and Violet, (gutsy and passionate performances from Cassie Aurora and Elle Knowles).
The twins are enticed away from the seedy Side Show by would-be theatrical impresarios Terry Connor (convincingly played with a snake oil salesman smile by Richard Haines) and Buddy Foster (an equally convincing but nicer chap image by Bradley Walwyn) to join the famed Orpheum Circuit. Terry asks them to share their dreams; Violet, the gentler of the two, says she just wants the normal life of a husband and home, Daisy, on the other hand, seeks fame and fortune. Terry tells them he can make their dreams come true after Sir rudely refuses Terry’s offer to be cut in on the twins’ potential vaudeville career, Terry devises a scheme whereby Buddy will teach the girls to sing and perform. They leave the Side Show and Jake, the Cannibal King, the twins’ friend and protector, leaves with them. They do indeed enjoy significant success professionally but fail at every level personally in the arenas of love and normality.
They are destined to be joined forever not just physically at the hip but emotionally in their hearts. Without them the Side Show fails and sadly the other freaks disappear from what was their only family.
The story is strongly factual; The Hilton Sisters were born in Brighton England in 1908 and died from the Hong Kong Flue epidemic in North Carolina in 1969. Violet lived for a few days longer than Daisy as was discovered at the autopsy. Her death was probably as much from a broken heart as the flu germ.
Why wasn’t this a smash on Broadway? Look at the recent success The Greatest Showman (very much along the same lines) has had? The reason is top musicals have a ‘must buy’ CD and have you coming out singing the lyrics.
Apart from ‘Who will love me as I am?’, the rest of the numbers are pretty unmemorable. That doesn’t mean to say that they are not well-performed – quite the opposite. This OJS production is better than the script and score they were working from; it is an excellent night at the theatre.
It runs until Saturday. Visit http://www.oldjointstock.co.uk/ or call 0121 200 1892 for tickets, which are £16. Shows start at 7.30pm.
Review by Euan Rose