Britney Spears on stage at the O2 Arena, London
Britney Spears on stage at the O2 Arena, London © Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for BCU

The best thing about Britney Spears’ Piece of Me tour is its scheduling. She has headlined a gay pride festival in Brighton and played in the rain at Scarborough, Yorkshire’s doughty answer to St Tropez. Next weekend she will end her summer jaunt round Britain at the spiritual home of the hen party, Blackpool.

London returned her to the usual habitat of the visiting pop star, the O2 Arena. It was the first of three nights at the venue. With ticket prices approaching Royal Opera House levels, members of the audience had dressed for the occasion. Some came as clones of the schoolgirl Britney from the video for her 1998 hit “… Baby One More Time”. Others went for the airline hostess look of 2004’s “Toxic”. Affection for the singer — survivor of a distressing personal meltdown just over a decade ago — ran high.

Unfortunately Spears did not seem capable of returning it. Her show was highly rehearsed but imaginatively underpowered, a slick and rather sterile affair that lacked any of the playfulness that had gone into the tour scheduling. (During her Brighton Pride appearance earlier in August the singer could be overheard asking a backing dancer the traditional question of the touring superstar — “Where are we?”)

The staging was based on the Las Vegas concert residency that Spears has played over the past few years, a career-reviving success with ticket sales of nearly 1m. But the version at the O2 Arena was thinner, with fewer stage props and no storyline. The screens showing close-ups of the stage action were impractically small. The 90-minute set was liberally stocked with striking songs — despite being derided by anti-pop snobs, Spears has a formidable back catalogue of hits, among the best of her generation — but the pace was fast and impersonal.

One problem was the singer’s notorious reliance on pre-recorded vocals: much of the “singing” appeared to be lip-synced. In compensation there was a lot of work with her troupe of backing dancers, a frenetic display of hair-flicking and armography, tightly performed but samey. Audience interaction was minimal. A male fan was recruited from the stalls for some kinky stage business during “Freakshow”: even this apparently genuine act of spontaneity had a forced, artificial feel to it.

A band added a live element that the vocals lacked, interpolating new arrangements into songs. The wonderfully brash Bollywood hook in “Toxic” was preceded by a deceptively calming pizzicato intro. A guitar solo was introduced to the hard-edged synth-pop of “Piece of Me”. But it was not enough to salvage the evening. “Are you ready to break the ice?” the singer cried at one point, in a shrill voice that could have shattered nearby panes of glass. But the ice, alas, remained unbroken.


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