When it begins with Let’s Look at the Freaks and a parade itht includes a bearded lady, a three-legged man, a dog boy and a savage canibal, this American off Broadway musical looks set to proceed along the Rocky Horror… road and give us a gaudy spectacle in the worst possible taste. But then the spotlight falls on conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton who proclaim “we want to be like everyone else” and it becomes clear instantly that we will be taken in exactly the opposite direction. This is rather a pity.
Set in the era of the Great Depression and inspired by a true story, the show follows the fortunes of the inseparable sisters as they are lured away from a Texas circus side show run by the cruel “Sir” (Chris Howell) and follow two handsome young “princes” (Dominic Hodson and Haydn Oakley) to try their luck in Vaudeville and then Hollywood. Higher class freak shows maybe, but still freak shows and all the girls want, we are told repeatedly, is…see above. When they start pairing up with suitors, the mind boggles at the logistics, but Bill Russell’s book dares not to go there. He seems so intent on avoiding giving offence to anyone that the show becomes drained of almost all humour, leaving a predictable romantic melodrama that frequently gets mired in treacle.
Henry Krieger’s score and Russell’s lyrics compound the problem with a succession of melodic, sentimental songs. mostly very similar, that merge together in the mind to become one. There are two notable exceptions which come together in the second act. One Plus One Equals Three has rare wit and is staged imaginatively; and Jay Marsh as Jake, the twins’ devoted minder, lets rip on You Should Be Loved, bringing the evening as close as it gets to a genuine showstopper. Matthew Cole’s inventive choreography adds vitality and colour to Hannah Chissick’s, production which gets little help from a lazy set design consisting of little more than dozens of fairground lights.
The biggest consolation is the ace casting of Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford who step into the conjoined costumes. Seeing and hearing each of these ladies individually would be worth more than the ticket price here, but their harmonious duets are an absolute treat. Sadly, neither gets much chance to flex her acting muscles, the separate characters being drawn weakly and it is not until near the end that we get any clues as to how the twins feel towards each other.
Time and again, opportunities for dark humour pass by and we are left with a curate’s egg, good in parts, but disappointing overall. With so many great musicals arriving in London this year, the relative position that this one assumes is summed up by its title.
Performance date: 25 October 2016