The Tiger Lillies’ Christmas Carol: A Victorian Gutter at the Southbank Centre
There is no friendly preamble when the Tiger Lillies walk on stage, all three in Victorian garb and black-and-white make up, one with a drag inspired shape to his black lips, one with the beseeching eyebrows of a sad clown, one a wrinkled Scrooge looking hardly of this world. This is not a show that cares to make its audience comfortable. Although the 75-minute production jumps off from Dickens, it doesn’t really tell the story of the classic, assuming that the audience will be familiar with the material, though there are vignettes that are launching points. The world the show inhabits exists somewhere between Victorian London and now, in a netherworld where poverty will always be the biggest character. Songs talk of rotting in hell, bitter tears, hunger, disease, prostitution, addiction, destitution, death. Although ostensibly about Victorian London, it’s hard not to hear the contemporary aptness in sections about greed, inequality and the rich letting the poor suffer.
Martin Jacques, songwriter and founder of the band, is the narrator and singer. He switches between his accordion, which glints an impish green in the lights, and the piano behind him, and also at times whips out something his colleague calls a tiny ukulele, which looks like just the neck of a guitar without any body, and is a surreal touch amongst many in this lavishly macabre show.
The production design by Phil Eddols is suitably gothic, with melted-down candles everywhere. The puppets representing the four ghosts are surprisingly eerie, especially the Ghost of Christmas Past, who is slicked with white glitter, blank white eyes peeking from behind the stage.
Adrian Stout (Scrooge) switches between double bass, guitar and other instruments. In a lament for his friend Jacob Marley he plays a saw, which gives a spectral sound that is truly mesmerising. The effect is like a theramin (which he also plays later in the show) but more ethereal, harder to grasp. Later, as Scrooge’s nighttime visitations push him further towards madness and he’s howling at the moon, Stout twangs away on a jaw harp.
Budi Butenop provides percussion and is Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. At the end, he even manages to make sleigh bells sound menacing as they are slowed down to a melancholy almost-jingle.
The most magical thing in the production is Jacques’s lissom falsetto. In his narration he sounds like Dame Edna Everage, with an arch tingle in his voice, but when he sings it is resplendent. He hits notes as clear and high as a night too freezing for snow.
The songwriting incorporates dark cabaret, Gypsy music, flamenco, post-punk, soul and jazz, amongst others. A number about rotting in hell is groovier than it should be and all the musical material is beguiling. It’s amazing that only three players can create such a complex and varied soundscape. A lot of the songs whip themselves up into a faster and faster tempo (which adds to the manic twist) or, like one of the last ones, devolve into Jacques shrieking “LOVE” at the audience a deranged number of times.
There is also some affecting philosophy at the end: “You’re only in the present and that’s where you’ll always be.” This is a captivating show – the musicianship is second to none and, like the best art, it is profound and tinged with madness and magic. It is a memorable must-see this festive season.
Photos: Pete Woodhead
The Tiger Lillies’ Christmas Carol: A Victorian Gutter is at the Southbank Centre from 14th December until 30th December 2021. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.