Wintergarten Variété, Berlin
Opened 27 September, 2010

Ever since the wild, out-of-left-field sensation of Shockheaded Peter in the late 1990s, the Tiger Lillies (who wrote and performed the songs based on Heinrich Hoffmann’s cautionary tales) have been searching for a show of their own that would approach that “junk opera”’s success. Whether shows such as Punch And Judy lacked resources or some more vital spark, their presentations in Britain never really made the grade. More successful, by all accounts, were their enterprises in German-speaking and central Europe, of which Freakshow is the latest, embarking now on a major tour after some exploratory dates last year.

The opening venue of the tour also helps: the Wintergarten is a recently-revived homage to the old variety palaces where food and drink are served during shows. Freakshow is the first guest production at the reopened Wintergarten after a lengthy closure, and although it contains nothing of outright bad visual taste, spectators are probably better advised to stick to the drink rather than order supper to accompany Martyn Jacques’ tales of depravity, disease and mutilation.

Director Sebastiano Toma has set the band on a stage amid miniature carnival caravans and doss-rooms, inhabited sometimes by miniature people and sometimes by normal-sized folk who have folded themselves into the confined spaces. Dwarfs Rolando and Irene Hofer thread their way through songs such as “The Deathless Man” and “Flipper Boy”, whilst Alba contorts herself around Jacques as he sings of the “Snake Woman” and Ele and Julia Janke perform an electrifying, fierce trapeze act mirroring the love/hate relationship in “Forever Together”. Lorenzo Mastropietro may not have three legs like Jake in the song, but his bowler hat juggling more than makes up for this deficit of limbs.

Some of Jacques’ songs – “Avarice”, for instance, and “The Wind And The Rain” – are among his strongest in years, treading the Lillies’ familiar sleazy territory but going musically and lyrically a notch or two further. Vocally, too: for the first time in more than 15 years of my experience, I heard Jacques on opening night sing several numbers in a gravelly baritone rather than his accustomed “castrato”. It is to be hoped that they find a way to bring this show to the U.K., to show British audiences at last what they are capable of when working in a sympathique performance culture.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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