The red, black and white face-paint, accordion-wielding aesthetic has plenty of fleeting youthful adherents, who pick it up for Fringe shows like an army jacket or ukulele – an incongruous, striking note. The Tiger Lillies have landed on, expanded on, inhabited this note to become founding fathers of an operatically, filthily rich world of whores, sailors, drugs and gin.
Their Edinburgh home, Underbelly’s Cowbarn, doesn’t make for the most atmospheric of venues — in a city oozing with dank, grimy cellars, cabaret bars, plush theatres, its only real advantage is capacious size. Spanning the distance from their crowd of sweaty, eager faces thirsty for Gin (Giiinn!!), The Tiger Lillies teasing us with the slimiest, filthiest set of songs they can muster, produced with all the resounding polish of an under-the-bridge aria.
Regaling a dedicated public with their special brand of falsetto-vocalled gypsy cabaret since 1989, this night feels like a chance for the Tiger Lillies to resurrect favourites from a long, much-loved back catalogue. Martyn Jacques’ beautifully clipped delivery recalls a school-mistress (specialty: elocution) gleefully navigating the gutter; his sideline and secret is “I’ve got the best [paedophile] ring in the town”. “Am I bad?” Yes. The themes are determinedly wicked. The aforementioned family business has the same uncomfortable disjunct of cosy inbred chumminess and barely hidden horrors as the Savile revelations – you can’t trust aunty. Banging in the Nails gets a joyful outing – a kind of demonic Lord of the Dance, with all the percussion of a church band possessed. Aunty Mabel’s dated riff on surprise-transvestism was less welcome; it might be time for her to be put to bed.
Songs of a squelchier kind lurk in the line-up like adolescents at a family party; Masturbating Jimmy and his brothers are accompanied by Adrian Stout’s moist fingers, rubbed squeakingly on a double bass. Whores flock in doorways – its an affectionate obsession, built on Jacques’ staining Soho memories, but song after song builds into something indefinably unpleasant. There’s still so much beauty, though, left chipped and lying about plasterwork in crumbling old hotels gone bad. Stout’s tenderly-wielded musical saw soars over the gentler numbers, an even more ethereal sister to Jacques’ operatic, wonderfully sustained notes; he can screech, but really, really sing too.
This show feels like an outlet for The Tiger Lillies, sandwiched between performances of their Rime of the Ancient Mariner at prettier, padded venues – by all accounts a less earthy experience. Its a bawdy knees-up where the Giiiinn!! is never poured, replaced by abundant streams of more bodily liquids; its faded Lils have been round the block, but haven’t lost the power to shock.