Theatre preview: Lulu – A Murder Ballad, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

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It’s been a while. In fact, it’s been a decade-and-a-half, but the fact that the last time the Tiger Lillies last worked with the West Yorkshire Playhouse the result was Shockheaded Peter means the band’s latest visit is one of the most anticipated of the latest season.

Shockheaded Peter, created by the Tiger Lillies with the support of the Leeds theatre, was a massive success that had a run in London’s West End and was at the time an entirely unique prospect. In 1998, it was a sort of theatre that simply wasn’t being made. Not least because it wasn’t really theatre. Not in the strictest sense. “We are a band that makes music theatre. It’s why we are in a unique position, we’re somewhere between music and theatre,” says Tiger Lillies front man Martyn Jacques.

Shockheaded Peter was the – well, the term musical is probably the closest we’ll get to an accurate definition. Although it has been called a punk musical, a junk opera, a twisted cabaret, it is best to say it is something pretty special, this thing that the Tiger Lillies do. “It’s a style of musical theatre that was being made in the 1920s and 30s in Berlin, a style made by the likes of (Bertolt) Brecht and Kurt Weill. That’s where we come from, this German Expressive Musical theatre,” says Jacques.

Wherever it comes from, it works. The band are on the stage of the Playhouse until Saturday, this time here thanks to the theatre joining forces with Opera North, co-producers of Lulu
– A Murder Ballad.

Jacques is aware of the reputation of the musical trio he founded. “We’ve inspired a whole musical sub-genre. You can’t really under-estimate that ” he says Jacques. It’s not arrogant – it’s the truth. “If you go to Edinburgh these days you see loads of companies making dark musical cabarets, but when we started out we were the only ones doing what we were doing. It’s also made its way into lots of mainstream shows and with mainstream artists. If you look at some theatre designs and an artist like, say Lady Gaga, you can see the influence we have had. We’re pretty happy and actually quite grateful that we’ve been ripped off. It makes you well known and quite an important figure in theatre and musical development of the 21st century.”

Further evidence of both the importance of the band and the fact that their work crosses many genres is the fact that Opera North and West Yorkshire Playhouse have come together – an incredibly rare occasion, if not for the first time ever – to help make Lulu – A Murder Ballad.

The idea began when the band played at the spectacular Howard Assembly Rooms. “We were chatting with the people at Opera North after one of the shows and the idea of something based on the plays by Frank Wedekind came up,” says Jacques. “I’ve written all the songs for it and we’ve been performing it in Spain, Austria, Switzerland and Hungary. It’s quite a famous piece in Germany, where it’s been turned into an opera and performed a lot, but it’s not something that that has been seen in England very much.”

It is another project that Jacques struggles to pigeonhole. Although the same, let’s remember, happened with Shockheaded Peter. “I’d call it a concept album – that’s partly cabaret. It’s a mixture of lots of the things that we do. We always choose projects that we think have a darkness and are interesting to us.”

Based on Wedekind’s plays Earth Spirit, written in 1895 and Pandora’s Box, written in 1904, the concept album/ musical/dark cabaret follows the story of Lulu, a young girl who suffers a lifetime of sexual abuse at the hands of various men, becomes a prostitute and attempts to climb out of her situation in Berlin, Paris and London early in the 1900s.

Featuring 20 new songs written by Jacques and performed by the The Tiger Lillies, it would be a surprise if it was to repeat the success of Shockheaded Peter. But you wouldn’t bet against this unique outfit coming up with something really quite special. Again.

The Tiger Lilles, Lulu - A Murder Ballad. West Yorkshire Playhouse, Jan 28-Feb 1. Suitable for 16 years old and over. Tickets 0113 2137700, www.wyp.org.uk

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