ONE PENNY OPERA, Soho Theatre

Janice K. Johnson


BWW Review: THE TIGER LILLIES: ONE PENNY OPERA, Soho TheatreBWW Review: THE TIGER LILLIES: ONE PENNY OPERA, Soho TheatreOlivier Award-winning dark cabaret trio The Tiger Lillies return with The One Penny Opera, their pointed take on The Threepenny Opera by Bertholdt Brecht and Kurt Weill and the seminal work upon it was based, John Gay‘s Beggar’s Opera.

Their latest show goes back to their roots. Frontman Martyn Jacques has spoken before about his Soho days dealing acid and marijuana and running a market stall selling drug paraphenalia in Rupert Street, as well as his admiration for what he calls “the macabre magic of pre-war Berlin”. In The One Penny Opera, we’re transported back to a vicious and viscous version of his old West London stomping ground, thick with murderers, thieves and all manner of villainy.

Even at a moment’s glance, it is hard to mistake this band for anyone else. All three wear a white face mask with heavy black make-up around the eyes. Jacques is always the focal point, his mesmerising falsetto a constant presence throughout each of the songs which he accompanies on either the piano or a small, emerald-coloured accordion. On one side of him, bassist Adrian Stout uses a gamut of instruments including a Jew’s harp, Spanish guitar, theremin, double bass and musical saw while, on the other, drummer Budi Butenop completes the trio.

The Tiger Lillies have form when it comes to imaginative and critically acclaimed re-stagings of well-known works. They first came to prominence with 1998’s Shockheaded Peter based on the popular German children’s book Struwwelpeter. Using puppetry and pantomimes, the production went on to be nominated for five Oliviers and won two (Best Entertainment and Best Supporting Performance in a Musical or Entertainment for Jacques). The band have since taken on other tragic classics including Frank Wedekind’s Lulu, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime Of The Ancient Mariner and Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck.

Imbued with the demonic atmosphere of a Satanic sacrifice, The One Penny Opera‘s name is perhaps a nod to its stripped-down set or the abbreviated take on the Brecht and Weill story. All the central characters are present and correct, not least king of the cutthroats Macheath (also known as Mack), his wife Polly Peachum, her father and boss of London’s beggars Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, pirate queen Jenny and police chief Tiger Brown. The plot does not deviate too far but, in a final twist, Mack escapes the gallows and gains a pardon to become the queen’s personal assassin.

The Threepenny Opera‘s most famous songs are present and correct and evocatively realised. “Pirate Jenny” sees Stout on the theremin as Jacques relays the Sicilian levels of revenge that the prostitute Jenny dreams of. The “Alabama Song”, also known as Whisky Bar, has been famously covered by David Bowie and The Doors and here retains Jim Morrison’s alleged alteration from “Show us the way to the next pretty boy” to “Show me the way to the next little girl”.

Mack the Knife”, a signature song for Fifties heartthrob Bobby Darin, was only written by Brecht and Weill after the actor playing Macheath demanded a last-minute number to introduce his character. Here, this afterthought becomes an epilogue, plaintively sung at the end as a farewell to the murderous Mack.

The superbly crafted blend of music and lyrics are as delightfully gruesome as ever and, despite the title, you won’t definitely won’t feel short-changed by The Tiger Lillies’ One Penny Opera.

The One Penny Opera continues at the Soho Theatre until 23 April.

Image: Andrey Kezzyn



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