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Review: The Very Worst of the Tiger Lillies

Cabaret Festival

Roll up! Roll up! Get ready to gawk at the depraved and the downtrodden, the freaks and the bums on the wharf in the rain. The musical vagabonds are back and they’re luring us into the shadows for a stroll through the wrong end of town.

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The Tiger Lillies formed in London in 1989. Since then the musical trio has won awards and wowed audiences around the world with their live performances, albums, theatre and art collaborations.

Adelaide audiences first saw the group’s cult hit musical Shockheaded Peter at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 2000, and met them again at the Space in 2003. The show they’ve brought to this year’s Cabaret Festival features “the greatest and worst songs” of a career that’s almost hit the 30-year mark.

Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent is the perfect venue for this deliciously revolting casserole of opera, punk and gypsy cabaret. It’s a suitably intimate and ornate setting for what is a captivating performance from all three artists.

Frontman Martyn Jacques, the “criminal castrato”, is the group’s founder and songwriter. He plays accordion, piano and ukulele, but is best known for his astonishing voice. Adrian Stout plays contrabass, musical saw and the wonderfully weird theremin, while Jonas Golland, who joined the group in 2015, is on drums and percussion.

The Tiger Lillies are the masters of what is definitely a niche market — they sing sad, sick songs that “shouldn’t be allowed”. Their world is a place of perverse beauty. There are whores aplenty, sailors, too, corpses and their killers by the score.

Characterisation is the key to surviving a wade through this bleaker-than-bleak swamp. The stars of the songs might be blasphemous and downright nasty, but they’re vividly drawn and, once heard, never forgotten.

It’s a world where tattoos hide bruises (Pretty Lisa) and kittens miaow beside the steaming remains of a naughty mistress whose inability to do as she’s told leads her to an unfortunate end (The Dreadful Story about Harriet and the Matches). Aunty Mabel isn’t doing too well since the war ended, but she makes the most of what she’s got — a very special talent (and a whopping secret). Pretty Lisa’s dreams of a high-wire career are dashed when, bashed by exploitative boyfriend Dashing Tony, she’s forced to work as a sideshow attraction instead.

Darkness envelopes the first half of the evening. There’s no sugar coating on the “drugs are bad” message of Billy’s Blues. His habit takes him straight to a slab in the morgue with only a couple of quick stops at rehab and prison on the way. In Terrible we hear a sociopathic killer’s laundry list of gruesome weekly chores. Silly Billy Boys is a rollicking ditty about dead children who learn, the hard way, what happens to bullies.

The show finishes with an encore of requests (including Violin Time and Banging in the Nails) and a few brief words with the audience before one final number from Shockheaded Peter. The Lillies are at their best when the grim subject matter is lightened with a splash of whimsy, and Flying Robert (about a boy who knew he should have stayed inside when the wind whipped up) was a satisfying choice to end to the night.

One final warning for those who haven’t twigged yet — it’s not a show for the easily offended. If you’re game, however, then pour yourself another glass of wine and settle in for some good, old-fashioned (ghastly) entertainment.

The Very Worst of the Tiger Lillies is showing at the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent until June 17. See more Adelaide Cabaret Festival reviews and previews here.

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