Royal Opera House – 21st July 2016
“Welcome to the inner sanctum of the Royal Opera House,” Neil Tennant beams, two tracks in to the second show of their sold out, four-night residency. “Tonight, there’s no opera or ballet; there’s just a room full of pop kids.” While it’s true that the Pet Shop Boys aren’t your usual ROH headliners, their performance tonight is pure theatre.
Striding out of two huge, flashing orbs at the back of the stage, to the strains of Berghain-inspired techno banger ‘Inner Sanctum’, Tennant sports shades and what looks like a deconstructed, silver fruit bowl for a hat, and Chris Lowe’s entire head is hidden beneath a spherical jigsaw-cum-helmet. There are blue lasers, seemingly shooting from the orbs and there’s a floor-to-ceiling video screen, flashing at the back of the stage. Just when we’re collectively wondering whether our excitement levels have peaked with the dumbfounding opening spectacle, they launch into ‘West End Girls’ and the entire theatre erupts.
Somehow tonight’s show is simultaneously like nothing you’ve ever seen, and precisely everything you’d expect from the Pet Shop Boys. For more than thirty years, Tennant and Lowe haven’t merely blurred the lines between art and pop, they’ve proven they’re one of only a handful artists capable of forging a symbiotic relationship between the two. From successful forays into ballet and musical theatre, to one-off projects including scoring ‘Battleship Potemkin’ and creating a “musical biography” for Alan Turing, their creative range is staggering. And yet, ask any one of the 2000-odd “Petheads” in attendance, and they’ll correctly tell you that the duo’s greatest achievement remains that peerless back catalogue. Tonight, Tennant and Lowe navigate through it with trademark generosity.
While it’s true that the Pet Shop Boys aren’t your usual ROH headliners, their performance tonight is pure theatre.
Alongside live debuts of songs from their latest LP – the aptly-titled Super – this residency features the first ever performances of Opportunities B-side ‘Into The Night’. There are a clutch of live-rarities: a barnstorming version of ‘The Sodom and Gomorrah Show’, a misty-eyed run through ‘Home and Dry’, and a spellbinding rendition of ‘Love Comes Quickly’ that provokes a mass singalong and dozens of tearful embraces. And, oh God, there are the hits.
Imperial period smash ‘It’s A Sin’ is super-charged and accompanied by a barrage of red and blue lasers. We’re treated to the kitsch disco of ‘New York City Boy’, complete with a body-popping dancer – clad in an iridescent suit – and a giant glitter ball projected on the screen. There’s a thrilling, acid-inspired version of ‘Left To My Own Devices’, arranged by Super/Electric-producer Stuart Price.
Another welcome development for this residency, is that Tennant and Lowe are accompanied onstage by three additional musicians. The two percussionists add real muscle to the Latin rhythms of ‘Se a vida é’, and live violin lifts ‘Love Is A Bourgeois Construct’. Lighting designer Rob Sinclair is also deserving of special praise tonight. His shimmering wall of lasers during ‘Home and Dry’ simulates how wonderful it might be to creep inside a plasma globe, and the green fog suspended above the duo during set-highlight ‘Vocal’ is truly breathtaking.
The most striking piece of creative direction is saved for ‘Go West’ and set-closer ‘Always On My Mind’. For both, the stage is filled with synchronised dancers wearing inflatable suits, and festooned with bobbing balloons. The effect is simultaneously absurdly flamboyant, utterly magnificent and completely unique, and therefore entirely consistent with the rest of the Pet Shop Boys’ career. As Tennant joked earlier in the set, “You don’t get that at ‘The Barber of Seville’.”
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