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BWW Interview: Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford Talk SIDE SHOW

Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford

Actresses Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford have an impressive musical haul between them, with Louise the first actress to play both Glinda and Elphaba in Wicked, as well as starring in Guys and Dolls and Kiss Me, Kate, while Laura's recent credits include Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Flowers for Mrs Harris. They're now playing conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton in the UK premiere of Side Show, which opens at Southwark Playhouse next week.

Did you know much about the show beforehand?

Louise: I've seen never seen a production, but I've been a huge fan of Henry Krieger's music since I was in training. The original cast recording is incredible - Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley, who played Daisy and Violet, I'm in love with their voices. So I was very familiar with the score, but not as much with the story. As soon as I knew it was coming to London I got very excited and started digging into it - to be able to explore the real lives of the Hilton twins has been absolutely amazing.

Laura: The same for me - I knew the music, and that challenge of playing a conjoined twin always fascinated me. The whole concept of the show is like nothing else. When I heard it was coming here, my ears immediately pricked up!

How hard is it playing conjoined twins?

Laura: It's a huge challenge. You want to be as accurate to them as you can be, physically, and that occasionally means the choreographer is limited in what we can do - as they would have been at the time. It's the art of compromise. That's what the sisters learned from birth, and their whole lives revolved around it.

Thank god Lou and I get on so well! It's not always the case, when you're thrown together with people in a rehearsal room, but this has been absolutely brilliant - we're very open to each other's suggestions and we really think about how to make each other's lives easier. This show gives me something new every day, or Lou will offer me something different to respond to, which is fantastic. This is the best part, getting to explore and create.

Louise: It was definitely hard when we first started working, but it quickly became very natural. We learned to walk together and move in a different way than we would normally on our own, and we've started talking together now too - a few times we've come out with something together. I think we're actually moulding into one! I can't imagine doing this with anyone else.

The company of Side Show

Did you do a lot of research?

Louise: Yes, we did loads of exploring, reading, watching videos on YouTube and documentaries, trying to get our heads around it. Actually not just for the twins - every character in this musical is based on a real person with a real condition. Our director Hannah [Chissick] wanted to make sure it was a very real interpretation of that, not just nice and shiny, razzle-dazzle performance. We're going into great detail of what they had and why they ended up in the sideshow. For a lot of them, they were completely exploited, but there were no other options available to them - this was the only way to make money, eat, find other people to socialise with.

Laura: Absolutely, every single character has a huge story to tell. The creative team made a lot of changes when they did the Broadway revival a couple of years ago, and lots of those dug more into the history and balanced out the other characters in the show. Yes, it's the twins' story, but it's important that every person is honoured.

Do you think the show has resonance now, in terms of how we treat difference?

Laura: Yes, that's something we've been incredibly aware of from day one. Today we still have those issues with how we address difference - it's a constant thing in our society. People are fighting those battles on a day-to-day basis, and I just hope and pray it's getting better. We've been asking a lot of questions in rehearsal about what is normal, how do you define it, and it's opened up all our eyes.

Louise: I think people who come to watch the show might feel uncomfortable because of some of the conditions that the "freaks" have, but I hope the story's told so well they'll get to know them and feel completely differently by the end.

Laura: And there are so many themes in this show - it deals with racism, sexism, homophobia. It's still so relevant.

Tell us about the story

Louise: In a nutshell, it's based on the true story of the Hilton twins, who were born in 1908. By the age of three they were already being completely exploited, paraded up and down the country in sideshows. Later in life they became the highest-paid vaudeville act of their time, but that career fell apart when people lost interest in vaudeville.

How do the sisters differ?

Louise: Daisy, who I play, is much more confident, curious and open-minded - she wants to explore the world and hopes there's more out there for them. She has this real drive to be successful and rich and find love.

Laura: Violet is more introverted and fearful - she doesn't have that confidence and she doesn't really want Daisy's lifestyle. You can imagine how hard it is for two people forced together who want opposite things out of life. The musical is also that period of time when they're becoming women, so we see that strength building in them in different ways. That's something teenagers can really relate to - the coming of age, how love can send you off on a different tangent, and two women coming into their own.

Louise Dearman, Laura Pitt-Pulford
and Dominic Hodson

What's it like starring in a musical anchored by two women?

Louise: It's a real honour to put that out there for people to come and watch. It's not like there aren't any other great female roles in other shows, but there aren't many musicals where you get two powerful women together, and the focus on that relationship. It's so exciting for us as actresses to play and to share.

Does the pressure the twins are under to be famous resonate with you?

Louise: Absolutely, that goes for everyone. Sometimes we forget just to be OK with ourselves - we get so wrapped up in trying to please everybody and lead these perfect public lives, and it's exhausting. In the grand scheme of things, we all have our issues, things we don't like about ourselves, but we all deserve to be treated equally - to have happiness and love.

Social media can be this wonderful thing, and I love that we can connect to fans and let them be a part of this world that they adore and support, but it can be damaging to define yourself too much by it or put stock in how other people judge you. This show tries to convey that it's good to be happy in your own skin. Someone shared this great quote recently, "There is one race on this planet and it's the human race."

Laura: I always say be a decent person, and human kindness costs nothing but means the world - and it makes you feel good as well. This show is really interesting. Yes, it's about "freaks" and Siamese twins, but it's also two girls and the extraordinary people they meet, who all have a rich history and a fascinating story to tell. It's such a strong coming of age tale - figuring out who you want to be in life.

Can you remember times when that applied to you?

Louise: I'm still figuring it out! I do sometimes think "Maybe I want to try something different". I was dancing from three, so it was always in me to do this, but in different phases of your life naturally everything shifts around you - priorities change, like when you have a family. But it actually gets better as you get older. You're still doing what you love, but it's maybe not your entire world in the same way. I enjoy working a lot more now. I used to feel an enormous amount of pressure trying to please everybody, but now I live in the moment and enjoy jumping into these different roles and just embrace the work I'm doing at the time.

Laura: It's exactly the same for me. Things shift constantly, so I try not to look too far into the future. Knowing what you want to do now is great, and maybe a year down the line I'll want to go open a coffee shop - you can't predict anything! Right now, I'm just thrilled to get to work on something so rich and rewarding.

What's it like getting to tackle this wonderful score?

Louise: I've always loved this music - it's just thrilling. I still listen to the original cast recording in my bedroom, having heard it a million times, and it always makes me cry. It ties in so well with the story, and it's an absolute joy to sing. We've stripped it back quite a lot in this production, so the emphasis is on the storytelling rather than the big notes. There are still big notes, but it's really important that they're emotionally connected and mean something. I can't wait to sing it every night, and for audiences to get to experience this beautiful show.

Side Show is at Southwark Playhouse 21 October-3 December

Photo credit: Pamela Raith Photography

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From This Author Marianka Swain