Who could possibly resist the allure of a black comedy with slightly quirky overtones starring Les “I’ll give you the money meself” Dennis and enduring genre favourite Anthony Head (still best-remembered as Buffy’s loyal mentor Rupert Giles)? It’s certainly a team-up we never expected and, whilst we’d be inclined to advise caution and tempered expectations when approaching Sideshow, written and directed by Adam Oldroyd on what’s clearly a tiny budget, if you can tune yourself into its very particular tone and it’s very deliberate offbeat humour, you might find it a lot more enjoyable than you could ever have anticipated in even your most feverish of dreams.
Les Dennis plays Stuart Pendrick, a sleazy, cynical, ageing, boozy psychic working under the creaky stage name ‘The All-Seeing Stupendo.’ He ekes out a pitiful living playing to virtually empty third-rate theatres in fourth-rate seaside resorts and his reluctant, despairing agent Gerald (Head) can barely hide his contempt for his washed-up client, even though he can’t help feeling a sense of professional obligation towards him. At the end of another pitiful performance, Pendrick drives home unaware that he is being shadowed by Eva (April Pearson) and Dom (Nathan Clarke), two would-be robbers intent on relieving him of what they believe is a secret stash of cash hidden somewhere in his house. Unfortunately, Eva and Dom are a pretty inept pair – dim Dom is the source of much of the humour – and the film quickly becomes a three-hander as Pendrick is disturbed in the middle of the pair’s clumsy break-in and tensions rise as Eva becomes increasingly desperate, Dom becomes increasingly gullible and Pendrick has to resort to every feeble trick in his book (there's an interesting ambiguity suggesting that he might actually have psychic abilities) if he’s to survive the night. Secrets and lies are exposed as the film trundles towards what we can only describe as an extraordinary climax that would be utterly laughable (and not in the way the film might intend) if it hadn’t been cleverly foreshadowed earlier on.
Sideshow is a very odd beast indeed. Its visual look and its grubby aesthetic have their roots in 1970s sitcoms like Rising Damp – even Rigsby would turn up his nose at Pendrick’s grimy hovel – and the humour is often broad, obvious, and occasionally slapstick. Dennis plays to his strengths here with a big, winning performance hewn from years of pantomime experience; Pendrick’s world is one he’s clearly familiar with even if he’s fortunate enough to have avoided falling into it. But the film has a dark heart too. The humour is occasionally extremely grim and the drama that underpins it is riven with elements of tragedy, missed opportunity, regret, underachievement and even dismal failure.
Sideshow is an odd and sometimes uncomfortable concoction and it absolutely will not be to everyone’s tastes. The first ten minutes or so will be the test; if you can adjust to Sideshow’s seedy, low-rent look and tolerate its cast of social misfits, you’ll find that the film has a strange appeal that will keep you watching even if you’re never entirely sure your time wouldn’t be better spent watching something else. Sideshow certainly isn’t a main attraction but it’s an interesting curiosity, a very quirky and very British film deftly directed and blessed with a clever if slightly bleak, script.
Sideshow will be in UK cinemas from March 11th and available on Digital Download March 21st! Pre-order here