In a theatre overshadowed by Eros, Rick Astley, who melted a thousand hearts in the 80s, is about to play to a sell-out crowd. The plush Criterion in Picadilly is for once not bustling with Shakespeare lovers but instead with fans of a Tin Tin-quiffed Lancashire lad who hasn’t performed in 14 years – not since his split from pop factory svengalis Stock Aitken & Waterman. It’s decidely fitting that Pete Waterman, now better known as a Pop Idol judge, is among the expectant crowd waiting to see Astley sing an evening of classics.
A cheer rises high above the ornate gold-leafed balconies as a six-man band appear, all clad in black, and play a jazzy brass-led instrumental. The cheers are wilder when Rick Astley strolls on with a glittering disarming smile and with left hand casually tucked in the trousers of his black suit. From the opening lines of Sinatra‘s Come Fly With Me the applause crackles through the excited audience. The yellow cocktail jazz continues straight into I Got You Under My Skin, fresh-faced Astley showing with his deep smokey voice and understated confidence that he’s swinging and winning more than Robbie Williams could ever wish for.
After a charming rendition of Heaven, Astley gazes at his enamoured crowd, oozing a certain laid-back mum-wooing sex appeal. “As well as sing the old classics I’ll be playing some of my old songs” he smiles, prompting a spontaneous whoop from the crowd, “and contrary to popular opinion I’m going to enjoy it too!”, which then inspires a female fan to rasp loudly: “WELCOME BACK RICKY BOY!”. The crowd roar with laughter; Astley abashedly grins. Indeed: he was back.
His old hits have to wait though as he stays in classics mode with Some Enchanted Evening, Walk On By, Say A Little Prayer For You and Cry Me A River – some with flourishing flute solos, others with a warm muted trumpet or tinkling piano.
After inciting the crowds to sings the “ahs” at the end of Close To You by The Carpenters, it’s hard to stop singing along, especially his own classic hits that he soon launches into. During the opening bars of the jazzy version of Cry For Help, the whoops reach fever pitch. “You have to sing in the next chorus, we don’t have a choir”, calls out Astley mid-song – seconds later the audience belt out the lyrics with gusto.
Astley picks up an acoustic guitar for the next song, his most famous, Never Gonna Give You Up. The Criterion goes wild, all around us people are standing up, clapping and singing like a gospel choir. In a self-effacing gesture Astley even throws in some of his trade-mark hip-sway dancing. The song turns into a medley as it blends into Together Forever and even Kylie‘s S.A.W. hit I Should Be So Lucky.
Before belting out a summery version of That’s Amore in the encore, he says beforehand how the song is a family favourite when they head down to Italy. “If you want to pretend you’re in the back of a Renault Espace, feel free”, the wit says. Though deep-rooted emotion overcomes Astley during his last song, Moon River. “I can’t do this”, he mutters with his back to the audience, at first seeming as though he’s play-acting. But then it’s apparant that Astley is struggling to keep composure and hold back the tears. “I’ve enjoyed tonight so much” he gushes before sobbing into his white towel – and immediately the audience collectively sweeps to its feet and clap like they’ve never clapped before – even Waterman.
They were the best man tears since Gazza and sealed a golden evening. My friend and I found ourselves cheering wildly for a singer that, to be honest, we were expecting to slate as another has-been trying to claw his way back to achieving a modicum of fame. How wrong we were – it was the surprise gig of the year and one of the best we’ve ever seen.