In 1908, Daisy and Violet Hilton were born in England, conjoined at the hip. From very early childhood, the twins’ condition was exploited by those around them, firstly by a legal guardian who introduced the girls to the circus sideshow at agree three, and later in life by managers and filmmakers. In fact, their final residence was in Charlotte, North Carolina, a circumstance forced upon them after their tour manager abandoned them in the city following a public appearance, and necessitating their taking work at a local store.

The story of the lives of the Hilton sisters is one of a great sadness and another shameful reminder of mankind’s innate compulsion to stigmatise and isolate those who are different. But as a reflection on history and a cautionary tale, it’s certainly strong source material for live theatre. And in 1997, Side Show, a new musical focusing on the Hilton sisters, premiered on Broadway, with music by Henry Krieger and book and lyrics by Bill Russell. Unfortunately, it was a limited engagement, swiftly closing after failing to find an audience. Almost 17 years later, a reimagined production of Side Show, under the direction of Academy Award-winner Bill Condon, hit the New York stage. Much anticipation brewed around the new production, but once again, Side Show closed due to poor ticket sales.

One Eyed Man Productions’ latest endeavour, in association with Hayes Theatre Co, sees Side Show staged in Australia for the first time. Condon’s updated production comes to the Hayes Theatre stage under the direction of Richard Carroll, with musical direction by Conrad Hamill.

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Berynn Schwerdt and the cast of Side Show (Photo by Kurt Sneddon)

Side Show’s chief focus is the sisters’ transition as young adults from captive circus act to allegedly emancipated (though, in reality, controlled) stars of the Vaudeville stage and, ultimately, to cinema. What we see on stage is a terrible indictment on most of the individuals who surrounded the sisters. In its entirety, Side Show succeeds in its efforts to evoke immense sympathy for these women. But Russell’s construction of the book and his song lyrics prevent the piece from being the powerful musical theatre work it could be. Lyrics are often banal and, while showcasing some tremendously talented vocalists here, there are a few too many ballads where the melodrama has been turned up a notch too high. The consequence is that Side Show is more soap opera with sledgehammer subtlety than sophisticated stage musical.

Laura Bunting and Kerrie Anne Greenland are wonderful in portraying the Hilton sisters. Carroll has certainly succeeded in working with the actors to ensure that, in Daisy and Violet, the audience sees two distinct women, each differently natured and each with their own hopes and dreams. Both Bunting and Greenland demonstrate their ability to handle the show’s taxing vocals, and their harmonisation, notably during their first stage entrance and later in ‘Who will love me as I am’, are especially enjoyable moments.

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Joshua Mulheran, Laura Bunting, Kerrie Anne Greenland and Gabriel Brown in Side Show (Photo by Kurt Sneddon)

As Terry, the talent scout who effects the sisters’ exit from the sideshow, Daniel Belle’s powerful tenor shines, particularly on ‘Private Conversation’ in Act II, in which he conveys a secret desire to be alone with Daisy Hilton. But there’s, perhaps, room for Belle to inject more charisma into his performance as the slick Orpheum Circuit scout, to ensure the believability of Terry’s magnetic appeal to the sisters from their first meeting. Elsewhere, Berynn Schwerdt has the presence essential to sell sideshow manager, Sir, but while he ticks the boxes on the acting front, his vocals on opener ‘Come look at the freaks’ need to be richer to establish his authority from the outset. And Timothy Springs is appealing as Jake, the only character who offers unconditional and uncomplicated love to either sister.

Lauren Peters’ simple set successfully locates us and makes good use of the Hayes’ restricted stage space, while Angela White’s beautiful work on costumes has bought the characters to life with authenticity. And while the 2014 Broadway production (and the cast recording it produced) saw the score performed by a lush, large orchestra, Hamill has done well to create a ‘big’ sound with only six players on hand.

The Australian premiere of Side Show is not the best show to hit The Hayes this year, but it’s an entertaining night out anchored by excellent performances from Bunting and Greenland, and provides a salient reminder that discrimination against those who society perceives as different is every bit as out-dated a concept as a circus freakshow.

Side Show plays The Hayes Theatre (19 Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point) until 16 October. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here

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