The Tiger Lillies: One Penny Opera at Soho Theatre


The Tiger Lillies: One Penny Opera at Soho Theatre | Theatre review


The Tiger Lillies’ latest macabre cabaret should be perfectly matched with its Soho Theatre venue and late-night performances. Adapted from John Guy’s famous 18th Century ballad The Beggar’s Opera, and Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, the show attempts to seduce its audience into the seedy Soho midnight backstreets. Unfortunately, despite the band’s unique sound, One Penny Opera is less a darkly delightful dirge than just dreary.

For those unfamiliar with the stories above, they needn’t worry too much. The key plot beats of this story of crime, calumny and cutthroats are given in the transitions between each musical number. The song lyrics appear to draw from Brecht’s didactic method but with a black satirical twist. Ironic juxtapositions are constantly made between content and tone, such as when upbeat jazz descends into frenetic refrains about killing the poor. The Soho Theatre Upstairs is given a devilish, closeted atmosphere with low, orange lights and red hues in the smoke, serving to emphasise the band’s disconcerting mime-like make-up.

The trio do impress with their musical talent and grim eccentricity. Frontman Martyn Jacques gives out a mischievous, creepy aura as he cuts glares at the audience, squeakily snaps out certain lyrics and jerks painfully in time with his small, glittering emerald accordion. Bassist Adrian Stout performs deftly across an eclectic range of instruments, from Spanish guitar to musical saw to theremin, while Budi Butenop delivers on the drums.

Regrettably, Jacques’ falsetto often strains against the instruments making it difficult to hear the lyrics. While initially intriguing, the music soon becomes repetitive and tedious. It isn’t helped by the show’s predictable structure, alternating between lively and sorrowful tunes. The rendering of the tale of murderous Macheath seems cut-and-dried, despite the destitution and political corruption having current resonance. Any so-called avant-gardism is reduced to weakly provocative lines about child prostitution or social cleansing. Nevertheless, the finale – a slow, melancholy rendition of the swing classic Mack the Knife – is a goosebump-inducing thrill.

Despite a one hour and a half runtime, One Penny Opera is done in just over an hour, and the audience is out onto those Soho pavements again. Fans of The Tiger Lillies will no doubt enjoy the cult band’s return to London. Yet, for the first-time goer, this opera might leave them short-changed by more than a penny.

James Humphrey

The Tiger Lillies: One Penny Opera is at Soho Theatre from 7th April until 23rd April 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.


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