The Tiger Lillies: One Penny Opera – Soho Theatre, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

It’s almost twenty-five years since the first performance of Shockheaded Peter, the Tiger Lillies’ incomparable Olivier-award-winning show. Directed and designed by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, it continues to wow audiences world wide.

A new show from Tiger Lillies’ founder Martyn Jacques is therefore eagerly anticipated. But One Penny Opera, now playing at the Soho Theatre, proves to be a pale imitation of the company’s former triumph. It’s a lifeless skeleton of Shockheaded Peter, both highly derivative and without the original’s spectacular artistic realisation.

Shockheaded Peter had used the thrillingly macabre 1845 children’s book by Heinrich Hoffmann, Stuwwelpeter, adding stunning puppetry and evocative, Berlin-cabaret style music. Martyn Jacques’ inspiration was Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill’s famous collaboration, The Threepenny Opera, which its turn was based on John Gay’s eighteenth-century hit, The Beggar’s Opera.

One Penny Opera returns to The Threepenny Opera and The Beggar’s Opera to tell once again the story of master criminal Macheath. But there seems little evidence that the Tiger Lillies have found anything fresh to mine. The story itself is told in snatches of unremarkable narrative and there is no attempt to create the visual world of Shockheaded Peter.

The music is instantly recognisable as the distinctive Tiger Lillies’ sound. The three-man cabaret band consists of musicians who double as backing vocalists: Jonas Golland, a drummer and percussionist and Adrian Stout, versative player of double bass, jaw harp, musical saw and theremin. The key member is the extraordinary Martyn Jacques himself. No one who has seen Shockheaded Peter will forget his eerie falsetto which he modulated to terrifying screams while accompanying himself on a small accordion.

Sadly now Jacques’ voice has become worn and thin, not always sufficiently powerful to be heard over the instruments. And the music itself is painfully derivative of Shockheaded Peter. The first number, indeed, You’re the King of the Cut-throats borrows directly from the earlier show’s plaintive Flying Robert and many subsequent numbers seem perilously close to other songs from that show.

Some numbers work well, such as Hit Me, Beat Me and Soho Moon . But too often Jacques returns to familiar tropes, emphasising anything sinister, lingering on the word ‘nasty’ and the songs regularly come to rest on ‘dying’, ‘death’ and ‘dead’. For an adult audience he adds in ‘bastard’ and ‘fuck’, but the shock value is scant.

The Tiger Lillies’ unique brand of black humour is little in evidence now, so the former beauty of many of their songs is lost.

Runs until 23 April 2022

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Disappointing return of The Tiger Lillies

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