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The Tiger Lillies’ Christmas Carol at The Southbank Centre

I’d not heard of the Tiger Lillies until I agreed to review their Christmas Show at The South Bank Centre, and, if I’m being completely honest, I wasn’t expecting a huge amount from the show and felt it probably wasn’t going to be to my liking, however, I was wrong. The show was fantastic, it was magical as it was melancholic, I’d happily go again and I am definitely adding the Tiger Lillies to my ones to watch list… and researching their back catalogue.

The Tiger Lillies - A Christmas Carol - Southbank Centre. Credit Pete Woodhead.
The Tiger Lillies – A Christmas Carol – Southbank Centre. Credit Pete Woodhead.

For those of you not in the know, (like me prior to this show) The Tiger Lillies are a Musical Trio with cult status. They have been around since 1989, (how have I not heard of them I ask myself!) and have been dubbed the forefathers of Brechtian Punk Cabaret.

Their current members are Martyn Jacques, Adrian Stout and Budi Butenop. The talent on the stage is exceptional, the song cycle they present to us in the intimate setting of the Purcell Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall is based on Charles Dicking’s masterpiece A Christmas Carol. The show is dark, yet strangely comforting.

All of the songs in the cycle are written by Jacques with additional dialogue and sound design by Stout. The music is beautiful, harmonious and multi-genre, which is in stark contrast to the lyrics which are dark, twisted, melancholic, unsettling, do you get the gist? This juxtaposition works really well and allows us to see cruel, dark bleakness tied in with beauty,

The trio are on the stage for around 80 minutes, (the show was about 3 songs too long in my opinion) and during that time they each play multiple instruments; accordion, piano, ukulele, double bass, musical saw, theremin, guitar and percussion. If you have never experienced someone playing the theremin before, I’d say go, this was worth the ticket price alone.

The song cycle covers many musical genres, from Weimar cabaret to opera, to classical to gypsy folk, each genre accompanied by short narrative interjections all in all creating a beautiful nightmare on the stage. A good way to picture this is to think Tim Burton characters coming to life on stage with a soundtrack by composers such as Michael Neiman and Kurt Weill.

Jacques’ performs his songs in his trademark beautiful falsetto, however, this meant I sometimes struggled to decipher some of the lyrics, which is a shame, this may have been to do with the levels of the sound though, not his diction, because 95% of the time I could hear him clearly.

Adorned in their usual face paints, the Tiger Lillies are dressed in Victorian attire with Stout dressed in the recognisable Scrooge nightgown and cap. Butenop has a great Tiny Tim costume and the Ghosts and Puppets that Phil Eddolls has created enhance the cabaret presentation we are seeing.

The Trio are lit by 3 spots (lighting design by Jo Palmer, Nao Nagai and Joel Stanners) other than that the stage is lit by old fashioned candlestick holders – at certain points in the show follow spots light up various props including a golden rat and a photograph of Scrooge’s wife. My favourite lighting moment takes place in the final bittersweet Christmas song when the lights are turned on the audience.

It would be hard to see this show and not make reference to contemporary London; Tory governed, Covid driven with much poverty. There is also definitely a deliberate nod to Covid with their song titled Tuberculous (with added coughs and splutter by Butenop).

Although the London of Dickins is no longer here and the seedy secrets of Soho are disappearing as it transforms into a tourist destination, the heart of this piece is about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer and a person’s ability to change and sustain that change is still relevant. Maybe this is the Christmas show of Covid times that we all need to experience.

All in all, this was a masterpiece in artistry, a performance by guys at the top of their game, a production that fills the soul with joy and dread. A piece that will stick with me for a long long time.

5 Star Rating

Review by Faye Stockley

The Tiger Lillies’ Christmas Carol
Until 30 December 2021
Purcell Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall


  • Faye Stockley

    Faye read Theatre & Performance at The University of Warwick; she went on to work as a stage manager in London and Edinburgh. She had a year's stint on-board the MV Island Escape as a Social Host and Compere and now works full time as a Recruitment Manager for the broadcast, entertainment and media sectors.

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