Lulu: A Murder Ballad

PictureDevised and Performed by The Tiger Lillies

Date: 28th January 2013
Location: West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Tickets: £12-20

Lulu lives on…!
Reviewed by Izzy Brittain, published at

The Tiger Lillies began as buskers, yet their other-worldly, castrati-influenced vocals, eccentric soundscapes and flamboyant performances have also found them a place in the theatre. Commissioned by Opera North Projects, and supported by West Yorkshire Playhouse and Warwick Arts Centre, Lulu follows many years of critical acclaim and theatrical collaborations, including the Olivier Award-winning “junk opera” Shockheaded Peter.

Lulu: A Murder Ballad unfolds over twenty songs and interludes. This tale is no easy ride, let me tell you. A challenging and tragic figure in 20th Century culture, her story has already been immortalised in theatre, film and opera. Lulu is complex and self-destructive; she is a seductress, a survivor, and at one time, a wife. She is also the little girl lost, bought, sold and controlled from the beginning by those who encircle her, and punished with death in the end. There is little that is redemptive in such an unfortunate story. As frontman Martyn Jacques commented, “Writing the songs for Lulu was hard; I was drawn into a very dark place. All the characters around her are grotesque, so you have to breathe this putrid air. All I can say is, I developed a profound sympathy for Lulu herself – she has very little choice in what happens to her.”

Even so, such a tale is a perfectly juicy, over-ripe fruit for The Tiger Lillies, and I mean that in the best possible way! They just do it so well, this kind of wrong-side-of-the-tracks, off-kilter story that has more than a few flies buzzing around it. I do, I confess, love this band long-time. Their genre-defying, surreal, gypsy-cabaret music cuts straight to the beautiful grotesque. This life may well be ‘piss and shit’ for some (or indeed, many of us in our darker moments) just as Jacques sang in Lulu, but it’s never presented by The Tiger Lillies without a subtle and fragile humanity. It’s a carnival, a freakshow – and within it is a glimpse of something honest from the broken and bruised backstreets of a life.

Lulu, as presented by The Tiger Lillies, still has all the urgency and relevance of a contemporary tale. ‘For all the lonely, she’ll share their pain’. I would have shed a few tears myself, for all those unloved, deemed too unconventional, or just plain unlucky amongst us. Yet The Tiger Lillies and co. always rose to meet my sadness at just the right moment with their revelry. The band’s mesmerising performance was supported by Mark Holthusen’s atmospheric, virtual sets and contemporary dance by Laura Caldow, formerly of The Royal Ballet. I particularly enjoyed the animation of an old-time London, which appeared to rise up, out and into the audience at one point. Caldow’s low-key movement was sophisticated and delicate, adding something gentle to what was an engrossing, yet uncompromising musical melodrama.

In their unique way, The Tiger Lillies presented dysfunctional relationships, child prostitution, abuse and a multitude of sadnesses in all their inglorious filth. How they do this without totally depressing the audience is a miracle, but the fact remains, I left smiling.


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