Penny for your thoughts? One Penny Opera at the Soho theatre reviewed by Christopher Walker

Time to head to Soho, for a walk on the wild side. Not the sanitized commercialized theatre that normally wins awards, but some late-night cabaret, true to its roots in the smouldering underground of the interwar years, writes Christopher Walker.

One Penny Opera is a “new take on a twisted classic” by Tiger Lillies, the Godfathers of Cabaret. A Soho Theatre triumph.

Soho Theatre is a purpose-built theatre in Dean Street. Or rather, it is three theatres – the 165-seat Main House, the 90-seat Studio, and the 140-seat Cabaret Space.

There are often several performances in each, running back-to-back. So in any year it plays to live audiences of some 250,000, excited theatre goers spilling over into the street.

It claims to be “London’s most vibrant producer for new theatre, comedy and classic cabaret.” Having watched The One Penny Opera I can support these claims.

Soho champions new writing and new voices and attracts a younger crowd than many of the capital’s theatres, it is firmly committed to “the radical ethos of the fringe and the traditions of punk culture and queer performance.”

The Tiger Lillies fit this mission perfectly. They are a cult British musical trio formed by singer songwriter Martyn Jacques who have created Brechtian Punk Cabaret, aiming for a style that merges the macabre magic of pre-war Berlin with the savage edge of punk.

The Lillies have won a string of awards, including an Olivier for their musical Shockheaded Peter, and have also had success with their Christmas Carol and The Ancient Mariner.

There are three members in the group – Martyn Jacques himself (on accordion, piano, and vocals), Adrian Stout (double bass and musical saw) and Jonas Golland (drums and percussion).

All three are first class musicians and gifted performers, and striking, haunting, in their Kabuki-thick white makeup.

They describe their songs as covering all the dark aspects of life, from prostitution and drug addiction to violence and despair, moments of deep sadness, cruel dark humour, and immense beauty.

Martyn Jacques spent his youth in Soho and got a taste for seedy life. He has a haunting wonderful falsetto, and is known on the cabaret scene as “the criminal castrato.”

These elements are all to the fore in their One Penny Opera, based loosely on John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera and more especially on Brecht and Weill’s 1928 Threepenny Opera.

This is a cabaret performance where Martyn sings us through the plot. The hit song Mack the Knife is thankfully sung by Martyn in an encore.

Macheath (Mackie, or Mack the Knife) marries Polly Peachum to the immense disgust of her father the King of the Beggars. He sets out to frame Mackie and have him hanged.

It turns out that the chief of police, Tiger Brown, is Mack the Knife’s old army comrade, but Mackie still ends up being arrested.

He escapes the hangman’s noose when in a bizarre parody of a happy ending, a messenger from the Queen arrives to pardon Macheath and grant him the title of Baron.

It is the perfect piece for the Tiger Lillies.

Martyn said he was “inspired by a song cycle swarming with highwaymen, thieves, jailors, pimps and prostitutes – a world of greed, crime, poverty, inequality and outrageous comedy, where the politicians are just as corrupt as the lowlife below them.”

A piece for our time indeed. And a most wonderfully dark after dinner amusement.

Cast from the One Penny Opera – Photo Credit: Andrey Kezzyn

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