“It used to be really easy to get people over the barrier,” smirked Robbie Williams as a fan invited up on stage had to walk the long way round. “Not so much anymore. I wonder why that is?” He was telling us, in that roguishly impudent manner which inspired genuine love or hate in people back when he was a current pop concern, that none of us are getting any younger. Now 43, the former Take That star is a bit paunchier than he once was, looking somewhere between Morrissey in a black leather kilt and Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull.
Robbie Williams ***
Looking round at an audience whose average age was probably roughly the same as the singer – or older – there was no doubt that Williams’ pop currency has passed into the realm of the nostalgia circuit show, albeit one which can still command the attention of nearly 60,000 paying customers. Yet he wore his age well, even with a host of comically overplayed dance moves and a half-dozen scantily-clad female dancers hanging off him.
Bombastic hits including Let Me Entertain You, Kids and the effervescently catchy Rock DJ were some of the most well-received elements of the show, but the more unexpectedly affecting parts came when Williams addressed the experience of his and our ageing and the sense of nostalgia his career now speaks to with unexpected subtlety.
He told jokey stories of his pre-school children – “the best thing that happened to me” – before dedicating Love My Life (performed in the grasp of a giant mechanical boxing glove) to them. He reminisced with real feeling over his first meeting with George Michael before his own buoyant take on Freedom 90. Best of all, he brought his own father and inspiration Peter on to duet on Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, a genuinely emotional moment.
Of course, there were points of silliness and cabaret amid the fireworks and flamethrowers, like the endless call and response singalong with a bunch of hits from his (and our) youth, the knuckleheaded Party Like a Russian and the ‘duet’ of Something Stupid with that audience guest who was fitted out in an animatronic Bo Selecta! mask.
Yet the grime-laced Rudebox – derided at the time of its release – felt strangely current, and Angels was given new life as a poignant tribute to the victims of the Manchester and London bombings. Williams’ dedication, like the best parts of his set, was mature and from the heart.