Opera House
August 11 | Reviewed by Anne Harré

PARK YOUR Puritanism at the door, The Tiger Lillies are in town. The British cult band and regular on the festival circuit (they’ve just come from the Christchurch Arts Festival) stirred up the cobwebs in Wellington’s Opera House recently with their mix of lusty, crude, rude, and extraordinarily poignant songs. Paintings of the crucifixion will never be the same.

From the show being opened by a sneezing pig, you could be mistaken for thinking that they’re only out to shock, that it’s all comic candyfloss. But underneath the searing humour runs a strain of deep discontent at the lives of the dispossessed in society. Laugh at your peril, there’s always a sting in the tale. There’s the lady who sells her fat, the ageing prostitute, the destitute, the addicts and general low-lives that inhabit all our lives.

Diane Arbus set to music, except that this gig was made up of songs from their Olivier award-winning smash Shockheaded Peter, along with a selection of numbers from their Grammy nominated album The Gorey End and other deranged fan favourites. Shockheaded Peter (Der Struwwelpeter, 1845) is a popular German children’s book by Heinrich Hoffmann. It’s full of rhymed stories about children, each one with a clear moral that demonstrates the disastrous consequences of misbehaviour.

The music itself can’t be pigeonholed; it’s such an eclectic mix of 1930’s Berlin cabaret, gypsy, opera, left-bank with a smidgen of klezmer thrown in. Either way it’s compelling and extraordinarily mesmerising. The band is made up of Martyn Jacques, lead singer accordion, guitar and piano player. Jacques is the founder of The Tiger Lillies and paints his face with “Joker” like white and red makeup, a freak show clown. Then, with his mouth stretched into a cynical snarl, his eyes verging on the crazed, he defies his look and sings like a deranged castrati choirboy. The lighting played up his nightmarish face, lighting him from the front of the stage like a torch under his chin. Partially in shadows most of the time, you wouldn’t want to meet him on a dark night.

Adrian Huge was on drums, percussion and toys, (yes that is correct). He hams it up with oversized dog bones, inflatable sheep and the head of a doll he pretends is a baby. His motto has to be “if he can hit it, he will”. Adrian Stout completes the trio on contra bass, musical saw, theremin and vocals. Together they form a tight, well-oiled machine. They should do, they’ve been together for around twenty years.

The Tiger Lillies challenge you on many fronts, one minute they’re tickling you with freak shows, miracle cures, tattoos that hide the bruises, and flipper boy, then they wring every ounce of genuine pathos with a hauntingly beautiful rendition of ‘My Funny Valentine’ and ‘Autumn Leaves’, go figure. Not always comfortable, not always easy but incredibly entertaining.