Barely a month ago, Plan B, the east London rapper turned retro-soul crooner, bagged a Brit Award at this venue for Best British Male. His performance then involved a massed bodypopping “jailbreak”, complete with fake blood and a “riot squad”. The routine finished with a man in flames capering down the runway. How would Ben Drew (for Plan B he is) top that?
There are no fireworks as such this time, but plenty of heat is emitted by the barrel-chested and besuited frontman, his excellent band and an artfully amateurish crew of dancers, reprising moves from the Wigan Casino years.
Drew’s passport to success has been the concept album The Defamation of Strickland Banks, the fictional story of a falsely imprisoned singer. The plot is ropy but who cares? The record is chock-full of the pin-sharp 1960s soul pastiche that is catnip to daytime radio après Amy Winehouse. Keeping it real(ish) and contemporary are the street eruptions of Drew’s rapping.
It’s brought to life with such gusto, and is so warmly received by the sell-out crowd, that I wonder when Strickland Banks the musical might hit the West End. A pair of black knickers is thrown on stage at one point and Drew hangs them on his microphone stand. Looking like a young Suggs or the gaffer of a “classy” pool hall, he is the antithesis of the manufactured pop star. That he’s made it largely through his own grit and determination is entirely admirable and, for my money, excuses the blandishments of the genre.
His falsetto struggles to be heard over the band, yet his presentation has none of the weediness of some R&B, where actual soppiness is directly proportional to supposed braggadocio.
An appropriately pent-up take on “The Recluse” and the courtroom hokum of “She Said” are highlights. His old stuff comes across well, too, especially “Charmaine”, a cautionary tale of lust at first sight.
The encore is a blast: an old-soul medley “for the mums and dads”; then a cover of “Stand By Me” with “dubstep madness” brought by the extraordinary beatboxer Faith SFX; and finally some rap-rocking teenage angst in the form of “Pieces”, Plan B’s 2008 dance track with Chase & Status.
Drew is quite the family entertainer.