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One Penny Opera

The Tiger Lillies
The Tiger Lillies
Soho Theatre

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The Tiger Lillies One Penny Opera Credit: Andrey Kezzyn

The Tiger Lillies are back where they belong in Soho, their birthplace and “spiritual home” with a 90-minute, no-interval cabaret show based on John Gay’s 18th century Beggar’s Opera and Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera. Ever witty, they demote their version—a mix of Gay, Weill and their own songs—to a One Penny Opera.

Deadpan and deathly in their ghoulish black and white face paints, it all feels a bit déjà vu, same old same old, and their fans love it. I’ve loved them since their 1998 Shockheaded Peter. And loved their take on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but The Tiger Lillies Christmas Carol last December felt on autopilot, which I put down to lockdown’s after effects. Or are they resting on their many laurels?

Tonight’s One Penny Opera, even its self-denigrating title, also seems to lack dramatic tension, though the trio’s playing is as good as ever. And I wonder why. Could it be they need an outside eye, a director? Shockheaded Peter had direction and design by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, and they collaborated with American visual artist Mark Holthusenon The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

There is no programme, but if you’re a fan you know what you’ll get with the Tiger Lillies, seedy life, pimps, cut throats, prostitutes, corruption from the lowest in the land to the top to Prince Albert, in all its glorious verbal vulgarity—‘git’ rhyming with ‘shit’—and the usual adult profanities (”he’s the best, fuck the rest”). Irony there may be yet there’s no edge. Are we desensitised these days? Spoiler alert: murderer Macheath cheats the gallows and ends up living in St James’s Palace… says it all, very au courant.

The musical standards are still superb if a bit been there done that. Martyn Jaques, who created the concept and band decades ago, does the falsetto vocals, and alternates on the accordion and piano, gritty on the accordion (I do love an accordion) and mellow ballads on the grand piano. Adrian Stout flits expertly from double bass to musical saw, theremin, jew’s harp, and guitar, whilst Budi Butenop is on drums.

They are in character, sort of—Stout seems to be channelling Mr Peachum and Butenop Tiger Brown, corrupt police chief of London and Macheath’s friend. Jaques is the narrator. If you know Weill’s work, you’ll spot the best songs are from his repertory, “Alabama Song / Whisky Bar”, borrowed from Weill’s Little Mahagonny (original sung by Lotte Lenya, but made popular by The Doors—another band I loved in my prime), and of course, “The Ballad of Mack the Knife / Mackie Messer”. The Tiger Lillies whet my appetite for Weill. Must dig out my CDs… and tapes… I wonder if they’ve watched Berlin Babylon

Reviewer: Vera Liber