Tiger Lillies

Notorious for a repertoire covering drugs, bestiality, blasphemy, sexual deviancy and the dark and dirty sides of life, Brechtian punk cbaret trio The Tiger Lillies are not for the faint of heart or those who like their album collection to have at least a veneer of genteel respectability. So why are they now appearing at the Southbank Centre, one of London’s altars of high art? The answer lies in the latest revival of their 2012 adaption based on the classic Coleridge poem Rime Of The Ancient Mariner.

This work follows on from their Hamlet which also played at the Southbank to critical acclaim. The band emerged in the late 1990s and Rime is yet another particularly avant-garde output from a band always deliberately out of kilter with the mainstream.

Those not well acquainted with the poem are advised to give it a read before seeing the show. While the Tiger Lillies’ songs play with the sinister and supernatural elements of the source material, they also happily meander through tangents and it may not be entirely clear to the uninitiated how they relate to the plot.

The band also seek to explore a whole range of musical styles and expressions in their storytelling; at times, the narrative delves into the dark and portentous while at other times it is silly and unconcerned. The songs do more than exposition, though. Both through the melodies and the lyrics, they create an ambience befitting this moving tale of stubborn determination and final redemption.

The set design has been purpose built to enhance the show’s visual impact. The threesome of Martyn Jacques, Adrian Stout and Mike Pickering perform behind a meshed screen, enabling front and rear projections to illustrate the songs and help build the story and atmosphere through particularly well thought out and satisfying animations by Mark Holthusen.

A good example is that of the albatross which is portrayed as a puppet controlled by strings moving across the sky, a clear node to the underlying motif of Rime that it is not free will but God and Death who orchestrate the affairs of the protagonists. Small details and touches like this bring the core tenets of seminal poem to life and create an immersive, shifting interactive landscape.

The songs and the images together evoke an eclectic mix of emotions throughout the show’s 90 minutes running time, not least fear, joy, bitterness, anger, sexual sadism, guilt and repentance. Through the moving images and artwork, there’s a very real sense of being taken on a journey with the band. Though I’ve known the poem for many years, I’m struck by just how weird this interpretation is and that there really couldn’t be a more suitable band to realise this stage version.

Watching the trio, there is a definite sense that here is a band very happy to be different. The have taken risks by playing around with the poem and its concepts and, in so doing, they are certainly not taking the easy or simple route to expressing their vision.

Those fans looking for a runthrough of the band’s many hits would be advised to see them at their more conventional shows. Rime is likely to appeal to supporters who want a different experience and know the work of this amazing band well. There are moments though, like the encore performance of a pumped up Living Hell that are just so rocking and badass it would be hard to imagine anyone with a soft spot for the Tiger Lillies walking away from this inventive and involving production without at least a smile on their face.

Rime Of The Ancient Mariner. Created and performed by the Tiger Lillies. Southbank Centre, London SE1 8XX. £20-30. 29 August 2014. http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/