Lulu - A Murder Ballad

Martin Jacques after Frank Wedekind
The Tiger Lillies with Opera North, West Yorkshire Playhouse, and Warwick Arts Centre
The Courtyard, West Yorkshire Playhouse

Martin Jacques as Shig and Laura Caldew as Lulu Credit: Tom Arber
Adrian Stout (bass), Martin Jacques (accordion), Laura Caldew (Lulu) and Mike Pickering (drums) Credit: Tom Arber

The theatre is packed, humming with anticipation, a background track, as if recorded in an inter-war Berlin night club tinkles and titters. The stage is concealed by a huge sheet upon which is projected a scatter of small windows, some illuminated.

And then the sheet sweeps back and there, in rich sombre light, are The Tiger Lillies. And so long as they are in line stage front, backed by a mesmerizing array of projections of houses, ballroom, the Eiffel Tower, the streets and intermingling mirror frames... and Lulu (Laura Caldow) trapped as if a fly in a web of imagery... for as long as it takes for the ‘Murder Ballad’ to unwind... we, the audience, are suspended in a sweet, rancid atmosphere of corruption and despair. Fabulous finds its true meaning.

Nobody does it like The Tiger Lillies. And Frank Wedekind could have created Lulu for them. Set a hundred years ago, it is a play for today, when the trafficking of young women and children slops around the foundations of a market economy ever more clearly revealed as a corrupted system sucking life and liberty from an increasingly impoverished underclass.

Owned by Shig who ‘passes’ for her father, Lulu’s young body is soon rented and sold to all and sundry. There follows a tale of drugs and murder and constant exploitation. It ends when Lulu services her last customer, Jack the Ripper.

Mark Holthusen’s beautifully projected sets offer a hypnotic, misty dreamscape for Laura Caldew to inhabit as she moves in parallel to the narrative, sung by the Tiger Lillies. And what to say about the Tiger Lillies? Once heard never forgotten. Once seen never forgotten.

Mike Pickering (drums, percussions, toys) appears almost acceptable in normal society. Creepiness personified, Adrian Stout (contra bass, musical saw, jaws harp, theremin, vocals) tall, thin, sardonic, straw-hat and lopsided bow tie, distracted, concentrated. You wouldn’t buy a second hand pencil sharpener from this man, let alone a car.

And between them the founding member, Martin Jacques (accordion, piano, vocals and voices), brown bowler, shabby pinstripe waistcoat and trousers, sweat-stained light tan leather loafers. Accordion resting on an ample stomach. And then the face. A paint-caked face as white as a starched winding sheet, sooty black eye patches, lids lined bleeding deep crimson. The mouth writhes and out comes an inimitable voice.

His range is choirboy to drunk, snarl to simper, bullfrog to mosquito, splatter of semen to ooze of blood. It’s not easy to imagine this onstage persona enjoying an innocent pleasure. As Shig he tells the story in songs based on Wedekind’s verse.

The elements of this show: sets / lighting, dance, music, song are all excellent, the whole is a show that you will never forget. Not everyone will ‘like’ it, but no-one will be in any doubt that they were in the presence of monumental talent, originality and theatricality of the highest order.

Leeds is sold out. But Lulu is touring: Warwick, Manchester, and Newcastle. Be one of the lucky few!

Reviewer: Ray Brown