The Tiger Lillies’ Christmas Carol review – Dickens is lost in queasy cabaret

Whether it’s the cheery musings of the worker hammering in the nails to crucify Jesus, a bleak paean to the glories of heroin or the cautionary tale of a young thumb-sucker whose thumbs are snipped off by a tailor with a giant pair of scissors, the Tiger Lillies can be relied on to find the twisted and macabre side to any story and tell it with gruesome relish.

So what, then, would they make of Dickens’ Christmas Carol? Turns out that the trio who’ve made a career hymning those who live in the shadows are stumped when faced with an actual ghost story.

The feel is Victorian music hall meets Jack the Ripper. A simple set is filled with candles, a cloth-covered table suggests an altar or a seance. Adrian Stout (double bass) and Budi Butenop (percussion) are in top hats and cloaks, while Martyn Jacques (vocals, accordion) is half-undertaker half-zombie, face white but for black eyes, a distorted grimace slashed across his mouth. But this, it turns out, is as scary as it gets.

The Tiger Lillies’ Christmas Carol: A Victorian Gutter is billed as a song cycle. The barest bones of Dickens’ story are told by Jacques, narrating, and Stout – from his double bass – speaks Scrooge’s few words, swapping top hat for nightcap. At the drums, Butenop is occasionally called on to be Tiny Tim or Bob Cratchit, and the four ghosts do appear – as ragged limbless puppets that hover behind the trio – but so much of the story is omitted that even if you thought you could recite Dickens’ tale in your sleep, you might find yourself confused.

Nor do the songs advance or illuminate the narrative. There are no darkly comic thoughts from characters who lurk at the underbelly of Victorian London, we hear little from Scrooge and nothing from those he mistreats. Instead, the more pacey tracks are all the same queasy waltz with Jacques keening about “poverteeee”, most of the rest of the lyrics indistinguishable. The slower tracks, with Jacques at the grand piano, fare better, but – as far as it’s possible to make out – still offer only generalised laments about regret, greed or “poverteeee”. In 2021, with a corrupt and uncaring elite in charge, child poverty soaring and as a new variant of Covid-19 runs riot, to make no sly connection between Dickens’ London and our own felt like missing an open goal. Meanwhile a bizarre and misjudged hymn to the terrors of tuberculosis, with fake coughing and spluttering, had me making sure my mask was firmly on.

Stout, with the saw, theremin and the jaw harp, adds atmosphere and brings much needed extra aural interest, but none of the songs in this 80-minute set are distinctive, and with various fumbled lines the evening felt unfocused and under-rehearsed. Things on that side at least might improve, but if you want an acerbic take on Dickens’s story, try Blackadder’s Christmas Carol instead.

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