The violence and vulnerability of the darkly appealing songs of cult cabaret trio the Tiger Lillies are evocatively set off among the faded glamour of Wilton’s Music Hall. In a two-week residency, the group is performing a mixture of favourites from their long career and their new album Devil’s Fairground. These stories of sordidness and squalor have a savage and sadistic humour as well as a sadness that makes you wonder, behind the Day-of-the-Dead greasepaint, what’s inside the mind of Martyn Jacques?
Since 1989 this singular singer-songwriter has led the Tiger Lillies with Adrian Stout on bass since 1995 and Jonas Golland on drums since 2015. They have been called the forefathers of Brechtian punk cabaret. Martyn Jacques’s falsetto singing and squawking can distract from the solid craft of a song catalogue ranging from the driving accordion of Dirty and Queer to the sparky ukulele of Self-Destruction to delicate and achingly sad piano ballads. Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is? hurtles along in a demented march-time, a ketamine recharging with reduced chords, extending the original’s disaffection with a characteristic sneer.
Whether singing about murder on the streets of Soho or foolish love in a lost childhood, the songs are pockmarked with cynicism. In tender moments it’s as if he doesn’t really believe in the beauty he is creating. This digs a curious hole at the heart of the music into which pathos pours and bubbles without settling. “We were very much in love” makes obvious lip service to centuries of songwriting but is uttered without passion or love, with a desolation that is ironically very moving. What’s the point of love when “all this time will corrupt and punch you in the front”?
Many songs remind us that areas of dark and unlikely comedy are the special preserve of the Tiger Lillies. Drugs! Drugs! Drugs! reminds us of a song written for a revue, if you know what I mean; the Tiger Lillies work a lot in theatre but the music is music music rather than music for musical theatre. You might not acknowledge the difference, but it’s there. It again points to the genesis of these songs being not just as vehicles for performance and entertainment but for expression and empathy, regardless of the depth of their cynicism. To some it’s all hilariously funny and vaudeville and weird; to others it’s all too brutally recognisable.
Review by AJ Dehany