Robbie Williams, 02 Arena, London – review

Last December, Swings Both Ways, Robbie Williams’s latest effort, became the UK’s 1,000th No 1 album. The first, in 1956, was Frank Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers. The Official Charts Company cooed about the “beautiful symmetry” of this crooning coincidence. Less sanguine types may have muttered “second time as farce”. Incorrigibly or insufferably “cheeky”, according to taste, Williams has always been a bit of a ham. Pulled pork is now more fashionable, but that didn’t stop the 40-year-old singer, Britain’s biggest solo act of the 1990s, selling out four dates at this venue, having already wowed the provinces and Europe.

Entering in a puff of smoke, Williams windmilled his arms and waggled his bum at the overwhelmingly mumsy crowd. They loved him back. He sported a tuxedo to gallivant round a looped stage, but this would be largely a slapstick mugging of Rat Pack glamour – more Norman Wisdom than Dean Martin – mixing standards and his swing-styled originals.

Curtain-up revealed three tiers of musicians on a set designed, for “Act One”, like a Boardwalk Empire speakeasy. Brass parped, tap-dancers tapped. Williams grabbed lines like a West End wise guy. Some treatments worked better than others. R Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” became a groovy barbershop number, while a ragtimey “I Wanna Be Like You”, from The Jungle Book film, was sung wearing monkey wigs and ears, as pith-helmeted Janes tottered along. Yet a children’s choir made for an icky “High Hopes”, and “Swings Both Ways” was mincingly close to gay minstrelsy.

All the gadding about seemed as important as the music, if not more so: Williams duetted with his Dad, signed a willing blonde’s shoulder, snogged a woman in exchange for chocolate, and “married” the plucky “Lynne from Dorset” in a service officiated by the “Reverend” Guy Chambers, his debonair pianist and co-writer. For the mock opera buffa of “No One Likes a Fat Pop Star”, a plumped-up Robbie dangled from a wire.

In the second half, the set was configured as an ocean liner – fitting, as the final destination of this shiny but throwaway cabaret is surely the cruise ship. That a medley including “Old Before I Die” could have featured his most sincere vocals was an afterthought. Following a soppy-solemn “My Way”, Williams teased “part-time supporters” slipping out with an a cappella intro to “Angels”. Fans gladly bawled as one, but this evening – even if knowingly so – felt as corny as they come.

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