The Tiger Lillies: Lulu – A Murder Ballad (Leeds)

The Tiger Lillies bring their latest genre-defying production to the West Yorkshire Playhouse, you’re assured to see “nothing else like it”.

Lulu, as created by Frank Wedekind and most famously realised in the Pabst/Louise Brooks film and the Berg opera, is the archetypal predator and victim. The men she couples with usually end up dead, but she herself is constantly brutalised and ultimately dies at the hands of Jack the Ripper.

Laura Caldow as Lulu and Martyn Jacques.
Laura Caldow as Lulu and Martyn Jacques.
© Tom Arber

Thus she forms an ideal subject for the Tiger Lillies, with their empathy with Victorian Grand Guignol and decadent inter-war cabaret. It was a bold decision by Opera North Projects to commission Lulu – A Murder Ballad, presented in association with West Yorkshire Playhouse and Warwick Arts Centre, a decision well justified by the enthusiastic near-capacity audience at the Courtyard Theatre and, no doubt, by the international touring still to come.

Writer/composer/performer Martyn Jacques‘ programme note states clearly where his sympathies lie, with “the one person who has no choice: Lulu.” The ballad tells her story, narrated in rasping Sprechgesang by Jacques as her “father” Shig, the first to exploit her, his self-delusion captured in the final irony. After a false curtain, he croons Cole Porter‘s great ballad of sexual cynicism, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”, and really seems to believe he treated her so well!

The first half of Lulu: A Murder Ballad I found always interesting, with some moments of acute shock and some memorable melodies and images; the second half, with its bruised ballads and waltzes and the bizarre combination of accordion and musical saw, I found totally compelling. The focus is very much (perhaps too much) on Martyn Jacques, with his white-face clown’s make-up, his eerie falsetto, his accordion and his often surprisingly delicate piano playing.

Adrian Stout and Mike Pickering are reduced to band members, but both are superb, Stout adding the evocative sounds of jews harp, theremin and saw to his excellent bass playing, Pickering a powerful drummer who plays all kinds of games with his percussion toy-box!

Jacques, as always, compels attention, but the eye is constantly drawn to the brilliant designs of Mark Holthusen, always on the move, often lop-sided, drifting in and out to provide a pictorial link to Lulu’s travels or an atmospheric commentary on her situation. Aided by Tim Skelly‘s lighting, their visual impact creates drama beyond the trio’s performance. The other added extra is the dancing of Laura Caldow, graceful, vulnerable, but not a Lulu who is consistently the focus of the drama.

Finally I was left wanting to see it again, to fit everything into place. I suspect that it’s a notch below the best of Tiger Lillies, but go to see it anyway – there’s nothing else like it!

Lulu – A Murder Ballad continues at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 1 February.