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Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
THE TIGER LILLIES, for those who don’t know, are the country’s foremost purveyors of what has been described as “Brechtian punk cabaret.”
Led by the inimitable Martyn Jacques — whose grimacing sneers, circus make-up and ludicrous falsetto somehow evoke an undead Ann Widdecombe, complete with Chelsea smile — they have perfected the art of being both thoroughly repulsive and utterly compelling.
Their sound, rooted in inter-war central European street music, is a backdrop for Jacques’s masterful storytelling — tales of everyday horror and misery as experienced by a parade of misfits, outcasts and assorted social detritus.
Edgar Allen Poe, on whose life their latest piece of musical theatre Haunted Palace is based is, of course, the perfect subject for the Jacques treatment. Not only do both men share an obsession for the hideous and the macabre but, in his personal life, the godfather of gothic horror lived a relentlessly hand-to-mouth existence, punctuated with tragedy, addiction and loss.
In the Lillies’ darkly comic retelling, Poe is, like all great artists, equal parts driven and tormented, an agitated Chaplinesque figure fixated on success but tortured by constant rejection. Jacques plays — who else? — the Raven from the poem which brought Poe his first fame. Prosperity did not follow.
He gets Poe hooked on ink in order to pimp out his writing talent and his obsession with it becomes all-consuming, slowly plunging him into madness and self-destruction. It doesn’t sound fun, but it is. The acting, mainly borne by just two actors with one playing Poe and the other a variety of female companions, is fantastically slapstick and melodramatic.
The sets, of morbid weddings, broiling seas, slummy back alleys and the haunted palace itself, are projected onto various backdrops and they're are works of art in themselves. And the music is wonderful. Played on a host of instruments including theremin, ukulele, grand piano and singing saw it's both entertaining and genuinely emotive.
I leave a complete convert. From now on, I will be at every new show their perverse little minds come up with. Never before has horror brought so much joy.
The Tiger Lillies tour Europe and the US until December 13, details: tigerlillies.com.
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