15 June, 2005Issue 4.3MusicThe Arts

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Cheap Tricks

Kristin Anderson

Masturbation. Paedophilia. Sheep-fucker. Guffawing yet? If so, then you’ve got a smashing night of cabaret ahead of you. Welcome to the Tiger Lillies, a three-man stage band that, despite a novel blend of acid folk music, Rive-Gauche kitsch, and porn-shop panto, fails utterly to move beyond banality.

The Tiger Lillies have a lengthy history in avant-garde performance: since 1989, front man Martin Jacques, bassist Adrian Stout and percussionist Adrian Huge have been following in the footsteps of Kurt Weill (as their promotional website proclaims), merging vaudeville slapstick with edgily sordid torch songs. It has proved a winning combination for them, garnering them an Olivier Award in 2002 and a Grammy nomination in 2003 for their tribute album to the art of Edward Gorey, The Gorey End. And yet the Lillies’ newest CD and stage-show give no hint of such promise.

Entitled Death and the Bible, it features songs about, well, death and the Bible—or, to be more specific, about matricide, suicide, incest, incontinence, and Mary Magdalene’s shagging of Jesus. Drawing on everything from jazz to opera, with snippets of gypsy song and the odd blues riff tossed in, the Tiger Lillies’ musical style is difficult to pigeonhole. Not so their content and stage presence, which are ploddingly grotesque. Setting blasphemous or scatological themes to operatic aria could be mildly diverting, were the musical compositions more finessed and the taboos more risqué. As it stands, Jacques’ faked castrato is too laboured and shrill to enable continued attention to the lyrics, which themselves are written in rhymes that Seuss would find simplistic. Imagine two hours of a scratchy falsetto warbling such naughty witticisms as, ‘I’m incontinent, I soil the sheets/ my heartbeat is growing weak/ I even find it hard to speak as my urine from me leaks’, or ‘Mummy, my mummy, my mummy/ She’s in a mental home’. Riotous, no?

Because of the ululating vocals and the bland libretto, the quicker, punkier ensemble numbers are more tolerable than the ballads. The two Adrians are solid accompanists if technically unexciting, although Jacques’ unending shuffling between the accordion—which sets the musical tenor for the evening—and piano is more cosmetic than competent. That the music exists solely as a backdrop for slapstick posturing is apparent, and is a pity, as the only slight pleasure comes from watching the bassist, who occasionally drops his deadpan facade enough to be seen enjoying himself. That, and from limping to the Soho Theatre’s bar, which is mercifully affordable.

All of this not withstanding, however, the primary problem with the Tiger Lillies, is that despite their professed raison d’être — ‘I’m trying to confuse, disorientate and destroy!’ intones Jacques unironically — their brand of revolution simply does not shock, does not provoke. At least Jerry Springer: The Opera included a barbed bit of political satire and moral commentary: this has a kind of Big Brother senselessness — a mere cataloguing of bodily functions and half-baked fantasies compiled with the self-conscious puerility of the primary school exhibitionist who examines the exhumed contents of his nostrils before re-ingesting them. There’s nothing destructive about watching a middle-aged man in pancake makeup. Grabbing testicles while wailing about dead babies wears thin after, oh, the first three seconds, and a fat man with a mallet destroying his drum set ceased to be revolutionary after Animal picked up the trick in the Muppet Show.

Ultimately, this is not good music. Nor is it theatre in any sense, whether traditional or avant-garde: it is neither transformative nor provocative, neither profound nor pleasurable; it has neither the pointed nihilism of Beckett or Pinter, nor the irreverent anarchy of Weill and Brecht. At best, its intentional amorality might be an unintentional homage to Artaud’s theatre of cruelty, albeit with themes so overexposed that all shock value and subsequent moral discomfort disappear. It’s nothing, in fact, save for a sweaty, noise-filled misuse of two hours, two hours during which one could have been watching something comparatively enlightening, such as a spaniel licking itself, or maybe that ABBA musical.

Kristin Anderson is a D.Phil student in English Literature at Exeter College, Oxford. She writes on Second World War-era London.