tue 28/05/2024

The Tiger Lillies, Southbank Centre | reviews, news & interviews

The Tiger Lillies, Southbank Centre

The Tiger Lillies, Southbank Centre

The Big Voice of Martyn Jacques compels as madly, badly as ever

'High Voltage' reads the warning sign in the Tiger Lillies' spiritual home, a Russian cellar with backing group of Gogolian paste-faced grotesques

The last two years have seen the Tiger Lillies hit a prolific peak of activity, to be found as often on the theatrical as the concert stage, drawing on plenty of influences from outside the UK to boot.

Mike Pickering came on board last year in place of drummer Adrian Huge, who’d been part of the trio’s line-up from its founding back in 1989, but there was no let-up in levels of intensity last night from lead performer Martyn Jacques, who gave his all to a 90-minute set drawn from numbers from their last four albums, from 2011’s Woyzeck & the Tiger Lillies through to this year’s Either Or.

What a fertile time it’s been, with the group thriving on the stage links behind all of them: Woyzeck was a musical mêlée from the Georg Büchner play, recorded in Vienna, Hamlet the soundtrack to the “opera grotesque” The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet that began at Copenhagen’s Republique Theatre (Either Or, meanwhile, took its unusual inspiration from the works of that country’s philosopher of choice, Søren Kierkegaard, and runs independently as a cabaret show). Their new theatre piece, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, is gloriously, completely their own, in the way that Shockheaded Peter became back at the end of the Nineties; recorded from 2008 onwards in California, it premiered in France last year (recently seen at the Brighton Festival, it’s back at the Southbank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in early September). 

Add to that the fact that Tiger Lillies are to be found performing abroad – they’ve developed something of a symbiotic relationship with Russia, to name only one destination (pictured right, the group’s first live album, The Tiger Lillies Live in Russia 2000-2001) – as often as at home, and their brand of dark cabaret is anchored well outside these isles. These three gigs at Wonderground are their only London appearances of the year, and in a nice touch they’re playing the night slot at the Spiegeltent, following on from raucous Australian circus show Limbo, whose composer Sxip Shirey is surely something of a Jacques disciple, both musically and sartorially.

Appearing out of an opening blue haze, the three cut in with “Living Hell” from Rime, their opening dynamics dominated by Jacques’s trademark angry energy. Jacques was as fierce of voice as ever, racing the tempos, even giving the second number “Depression (Our Faithful Mistress to the End)” a swinging jauntiness. Jacques spins narratives of grunged macabre (“Sailor” with its fly-on-the-wall visions of sex), shooting out loops of cruelty with the guilt of a demented Bibler (“Nothing Is Sin”). With backing vocals from Pickering and contrabassist Adrian Stout, they can do anything from snarling to vomiting animal, rendering orgasm effortlessly in Woyzeck’s “My Last Breath (Can This Be?)” as more a puke than a petit mort. Jacques’s voice stretches, swoops, punches and stammers, before cutting itself out bathetically (“Deathship (Ahoy!)") with a whisper that was pure Kurt Weill.

No one else does scabrous empathy as well as the Tiger Lillies

Then there was a change of direction with “Love for Sale”, from Either Or, towards the melancholy as Jacques’s accordion crooned with all the power of a blues voice (aided by Stout on a singing musical saw). How the Tiger Lillies can manage moments of special tenderness when they want to, as they did with the Ophelia song “Lover (Stolen by a Thief)” from Hamlet, Jacques gurning away with what can best be called a big stage timbre. The next two numbers were from Woyzeck – that text certainly resounds for the trio – first virtuouso falsetto wobbling in “Jealousy”, then the shivering of a wounded soul in “Waltz the Night Away”.

Finally it was back to Rime, and closing number “Albatross”, Jacques’s punched-out falsetto given some electronic mystery by Stout on the theremin. The albatross is simply the only bird in the world for Jacques (pictured left, Martyn Jacques, centre, with the bloody bird:Becalmed the albatross avenged/Albatross hangs round his neck”): it has everything of the singer’s unique you-can’t-get-rid-of-me-and-you-never-will in-our-faceness.

Then Jacques the crazed balladeer delved into the past for two encores of mad, sad desolation unweaving on the edges and ends of different empires. First was the glorious 2003 Victorian morality tale “Gin” ("Abandoned by his kith and kin/Because he had succumbed to gin") from our own imperial past; then the oldest, saddest one of them all, the Lillies anthem from their 1996 The Brothel to the Cemetery, “Russians” ("Selling off an empire, they sell it by the pound/The Russians in the market square"). No one else does scabrous empathy as well as the Tiger Lillies, though this was a show that left you with a sliver of ice unmelted in the soul – or rather, with this lot, somewhere lower, deep in the guts.

The Tiger Lillies are at London Wonderground Saturday, Sunday at 21.15

The Tiger Lillies - Live in Concert at Underbelly, Edinburgh, August 6-17

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters