Robbie Williams review – a survivor and national treasure triumphant | Robbie Williams

By the way Robbie Williams opening his show at London’s O2 Arena, you’d think he’d have something to prove. A national treasure and one of the best-selling artists of all time, Williams has reflected British culture back on itself in a hurricane of hair gel and bravado since joining Take That in 1990. Likewise, he has had a life of fierce ups and downs – adoration and derision, addiction and recovery – it’s made him something of an underdog. Tonight you hear him before you see him. The familiar, forever boyish voice that checks the microphone – “two, one two” – and gives the occasion a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants vibe. Next you see his silhouette. He appears behind the band frozen in an Elvis pose; crouched down, microphone in hand, pants and all. They start Let me entertain you and Robbie struts to center stage, revealing a gold glitter vest, a graying French mullet and box-fresh white trainers. “Now SCREAM!” he demands. And they do.

Williams is a performer who very much likes Liam Gallagher or Alex Turner, is able to tap into a kind of British masculinity that is loud in the mouth and soft in the eyes: ballads for boys who are constantly a sip of Carling away from bursting into tears over an afternoon with their grandfather for 24 since. As he toasts around the stage singing lyrics like “my bed is full of takeaways, of fantasies of easy camps” and “I don’t wanna die, but I ain’t keen to live either” to an audience of all ages, you get the feeling that these songs are timeless because they were written from an abyss. Whether he’s proclaiming “I’m a star but I’m fading” or lamenting that “youth is wasted on the young,” the threat of loss hangs over every highlight.

'Happy ending' ... Robbie Williams.
‘Happy ending’ … Robbie Williams. Photo: Ian West/PA

The tour is in support of William’s latest album, XXV, which sees 25 years of hits and fan favorites re-recorded and orchestrated with Metropole Orchestra. From Take That’s The Flood to Rock DJ to the Kylie Minogue duet Children, it’s essentially a personal tour of his career, from boyband heartthrob through the cocaine years to his current station as a family man whose kids think he’s lost his looks. The set is peppered with anecdotes about going on holiday with Geri Horner when he was first getting sober and doing cocaine with Oasis at Glastonbury before hammering out a cover of Don’t Look Back in Anger so resonant that it should legitimately annoy the Gallagher brothers into burying the hatchet.

Given the scope of the tour, it’s no surprise that it almost feels like a swan song. He’s talking about 1990 – the year Thatcher left, the Berlin Wall came down (November 1989 to be exact) and, more importantly, Take That formed. He does live commentary for the video too Everything changes: explains why there’s jelly bouncing off his bare body and how Gary Barlow got all the lead parts. He recalls reading NME in the 90s and getting “big ideas” about writing his own songs. He dedicates himself to his family and says he has found happiness. At one point, a camera sweeps past the barrier and lingers on an elderly male fan holding a handmade sign that reads “hardcore since ’74” (the year Robbie was born).

To counter there are plenty of the man who gave us Window box (which he mercifully does not play). Pointing into the crowd and grabbing his crotch, he bends over and bellows “that’s my ass, that’s my ass” followed by something about aging. Within the first five minutes he’s down in the crowd screaming “come on dammit”. For a sweeping encore of No regrets and She is the only onehe dons a tailored wrestling robe and holds his arms outstretched as the orchestra blasts the songs to operatic proportions.

Like his father Peter, the Sinatra of working men’s clubs, Williams is a showman through and through. As he waxes lyrical about entertainment, he tells us that the number one rule is “love your audience” and that love clearly goes both ways. Before finally bringing things to an end Angelshe nods to Knebworth 2003: “When I asked you to grow old with me at Knebworth, you did, didn’t you?”

Williams, now approaching 50, doesn’t just write songs about living fast and being young. He acts with the joy of what may come afterwards. His parting message to all those who have followed his journey from the start – and, I suspect, himself: “It turns out there is a happy ending.”

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