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Review: SIDE SHOW, Southwark Playhouse

Two guys talk a lot in a prison. There's a gang rape and one of their friends hangs himself and another gets shot. The hero crawls through a sewage pipe in order to get to a bank and his best buddy can't hold down a job in a shop. There's no romance, in fact, no women on screen at all.

You may well recognise the film I describe above, one that flopped at the box office, but is now a fixture in Most Loved Movies listicles, a fact attributed to DVD rentals and word of mouth recommendations. I suspect twice Broadway musical flop, Side Show, has a similar problem to face - it just doesn't sound good on paper. So let's get that done first.

Conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton, are "exhibits" in a 1920s Texan freak show (complete with a Bearded Lady, a Lizard Man, a Cannibal King etc etc etc) ruled by their "father", Sir, the ringmaster martinet. They sing like angels and are spotted by dodgy New York producers, Terry and Buddy, on the lookout for acts to fan the dying embers of Vaudeville. The Hilton sisters' combination of Siamese Twin gimmickry (as it was called then) and close harmony singing allied to, it has to be said, an almost limitless capacity to provoke sexual curiosity, proved a formula that shot them to short-lived superstardom, before the pressures of success, stalling love affairs and the talkies burst their bubble.

Bill Russell's book (with additional material by Bill Condon) may be (largely) true to the sisters' history, but it hardly jumps off the page as the basis for a great night out in the stalls. Fortunately, that doesn't matter - this is musical theatre and it's songs and singing beating plot and script every time.

Russell is much better as a lyricist, his words complementing Henry "Dreamgirls" Krieger's music perfectly to create some of the biggest numbers I've seen in a fringe production. There's the sweet "Buddy Kissed Me" as Violet feels love for the first time, or at least the sense (misguided though the thought proves to be) of being a fully sexual woman and not a freak to be ridiculed or pitied. "Leave Me Alone" is a beautifully judged duet between the sisters, as they fall out over the way success is changing them.

The epic "Private Conversation" provokes some sympathy for Terry, in love with feisty Daisy, but unable to separate her in real life (literally and metaphorically) from her twin, Violet. The plaintive finale, "I Will Never Leave You", ensures that there's barely a dry eye in the house, the sisters embracing each other in a world that won't embrace them.

Such fantastic songs - and this score is completely deserving of its Tony nomination in 1998 - needs top-drawer singers to do them justice, and director Hannah Chissick gets award-worthy performances from her two stars, Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford. The individual work is strong enough, but in harmony, as they were for many numbers, their work is sensational, big enough to match Jo Cichonska's confident orchestration, but sufficiently nuanced to bring out the sisters' very different personalities and aspirations. This is top-quality West End stuff at a quarter the price.

Pity the rest of the cast who have to keep up with Dearman and Pitt-Pulford's megawatt star quality, but they do fine in their own right. Dominic Hodson and Haydn Oakley are sleazily plausible as promoters and not-quite lovers, Terry and Buddy (Hodson superb in his big solos on "Private Conversation"), and Jay Marsh gets to roll out his beautiful baritone as the sisters' devoted protector, Jake. Much of the chorus spend time in Natasha Lawes' impressive prosthetics - which look good, but must be mighty uncomfortable! A word too for Matthew Cole's dynamic choreography, adding to the West End lustre of the production.

After some disappointing outings at musicals recently, London now hosts two hugely ambitious, flawed, but nevertheless magnificently realised big shows on the fringe at prices that are much more affordable than Shaftesbury Avenue. Ragtime and Side Show have much in common with their settings and their themes, but more than anything else, they should both please fans of musical theatre with their mastery of its peculiar form. I might not see anything as good on its own terms for years.

Side Show continues at Southwark Playhouse until 3 December.

Read our interview with Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford.

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From This Author - Gary Naylor