You might think an 18th century poem set to castrati cabaret tunes would be a niche attraction, yet expectations were running high for tonight’s show and the Brighton Dome was at full capacity. The Tiger Lillies, known for their outlandish blend of music hall and circus cabaret were here to take on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s classic poem, The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner. What sounds like an obscure and unlikely fringe show was in fact touted as one of the highlights of Brighton Festival proper.
As the curtains part, both mariner and musicians set off with a lolloping shanty, the trio dressed like down-at-heel vagrants in face paint and ruffles. However, all eyes are drawn to the incredible visuals going on in the background – and foreground. A gauze screen places the stage between two layers of projected animations, immersing the band in a bustling harbour of barrels, sailors and ships. It’s a stunning effect, and sets a suitably surreal tone for the poem’s eerie events.
Meanwhile, Martyn Jacques’ high-pitched vocals narrate the tale of the doomed sailor’s voyage. As the mariner takes to the open sea the shanty gives way to a pensive piano ballad while the waves rise as stylised cardboard cut-outs. It’s a promising start but the atmosphere is pulled up suddenly short by an accordion-led oompah ditty about buggering cabin boys. Anyone unfamiliar with the poem doesn’t need to be told this ain’t quite Coleridge’s style. It’s a jarring and ludicrous interjection and we start to worry how loose they plan to play with their ‘interpretation’. In comparison, the addition of an underwater love affair with a mermaid comes as a nice surprise.
Since they formed in 1989, The Tiger Lillies have put out a staggering 33 albums – including a collection of songs from their 1998 hit stage show, Shockheaded Peter. As forefathers of ‘Brechtian Cabaret Punk’, the band’s lyrics typically deal with seedy subjects of the kind that might be deemed shocking in some quarters. Their take on The Ancient Mariner eschews the redemptive morality of the original and plays up the macabre, dwelling on the corpses, curses and visions of hell. With its dicing reapers and spectral sailors, the story certainly lends itself to this gothic retelling.
Musically, the band are capable of moments of beauty alongside deviant rabble rousers. Martyn Jacques is equally confident on accordion and piano and is backed by a double bassist and drummer who make good use of Theremin, musical saw and assorted percussion. Despite this, the band eventually reaches the limits of their range and end up simply alternating between boisterous waltz and maudlin ballad. Likewise, the arch falsetto vocals – at first so arresting and poignant – become shrill through repetition.
But this is no normal gig. The enchanting visuals help draw the words and music together and remain inventive throughout – right up until the Spinal Tap encore in which we see the fires of hell through the jaws of a giant sea serpent. We saw some people walk out tonight; we saw others giving a standing ovation. If not niche, then at least an acquired taste.
Dome, Thursday 23rd May 2013
Words by Ben Bailey