The Tiger Lillies: One Penny Opera


Underbelly Bristo Square (Cow Barn), Edinburgh

Describing an act as ‘unique’ is often considered a cop-out, and yet I can’t think of a more appropriate word to describe The Tiger Lillies, three remarkable musicians currently strutting their inimitable stuff at The Cow Barn on Bristo Square. Originally formed way back in 1989, they’ve been through a number of personnel changes over the years, though the macabre compositions of singer-songwriter Martyn Jacques have remained a constant. They describe themselves as “Brechtian Punk Cabaret”, and who am I to argue with them?

The current lineup shambles onto the stage looking like characters from your worst nightmare, plastered in grotesque makeup and wearing eccentric outfits. They launch headlong into their opening song, a Germanic foot-tapper that recalls the music of pre-war Berlin, jaunty and uncompromising, while Jacques’ lyrics spin an introduction to a tale of darkness and dismay, a world of crime and vicious retribution, featuring Mack the Knife and Polly Platt. Indeed, the entire hour is devoted to the continuing adventures of these miscreants and their various accomplices, so this is as much a storytelling session as it is a concert.

These days, Jacques handles accordion and keyboards, anchored by the drumming of Budi Butenop and embellished by Adrian Stout’s mercurial musical flourishes. Watching Stout conjure ethereal sounds from the theremin, the electric bass and, at several points, from a battered old saw is like watching a gifted magician at work. If you thought a saw was only good for cutting down trees, think again! Occasionally, Jacques switches to keyboards and offers us beautiful ballads that juxtapose poignant melodies with tales of murder and bestiality. His voice, a weird, soaring soprano, is quite extraordinary too.

I could say that this won’t be for everyone, but judging by the large, spellbound crowd that’s in tonight, The Tiger Lillies’ dark cabaret clearly has an ardent following – and if you need any more convincing, the band won an Olivier Award back in the day for their cult musical Shock Headed Peter.

Those looking for a unique – yes, that word again! – blend of music and theatre should head down to the Cow Barn without delay for a truly unforgettable experience.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney


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