It’s testament to the sheer star power of Beyoncé Knowles that appearances tonight by husband Jay-Z and the recently ostracized Kanye West (on a remix of Ego) can’t move the spotlight from the force of nature that is Texas’ most famous daughter.
Amid a deluge of smoke and lights that threaten to melt aortae, Beyoncé’s amazonian frame appears from behind a vast curtain. As ear-splitting screams bounce around the cavernous O2 Arena, the silhouette moves closer to the front of the stage, pulling poses that make it clear she means business.
After a short snippet of Déjà Vu that’s barely audible above the screams, the familiar horn blast from Crazy In Love erupts, as dancers emerge from various points around the stage. In amongst the flashes of bare chests (the men) and skin-tight PVC (the women), Beyoncé commands attention, strutting from left to right, or performing gravity defying dance moves in heels as high as stilts.
Suddenly, the music drops and the bass-heavy rumble of Jay-Z’s I Just Wanna Love You (Give It 2 Me) kicks in, Beyoncé switching on a dime into a more aggressive performer. From the back of the stage, the black-clad figure of Jay-Z himself lolls into view, his rap drowned out by the screams and general gasps of ‘oh my God’.
From there, the show sets off at a breathless pace. Naughty Girl, Freakum Dress and Get Me Bodied are all dealt with in double-quick time, the stage awash with gold sequins and banks of bright orange lights. Despite an obvious croak in her voice when she talks, and the constant grabbing for tissues, the energy doesn’t dip and the voice never falters.
After a quick costume change – gold lamé is replaced with a more virginal white floaty number – we are introduced to the ‘Beyoncé’ section of the show, during which she does the ballads rather than the racier numbers. Smash Into You is flimsy guff sung on the top of a giant staircase, whilst Avé Maria finds Beyoncé in the middle of a wedding dress fitting. Recent single Broken-Hearted Girl, however, is much better, mainly because it’s allowed to exist on its own terms; a simple song, sung beautifully.
Of course, as we all know, Beyoncé is a multi-faceted creature. So, whilst all this balladeering is all well and good, what we really want to see is Sasha Fierce. Essentially, this alter ego is Beyoncé with more make-up and less clothes, but the songs she performs are the best of the night. Radio is a brilliant mix of innocent charm (“the only thing papa allowed to hang out in my room/ With the door closed”) and lashes of innuendo over clattering beats, whilst even the previously saccharine If I Were A Boy becomes an in-your-face rocker, interpolating a cover of Alanis Morissette‘s You Oughta Know.
Having flown over the crowd (no, seriously), she then performs a clutch of songs on a smaller stage in the middle, gyrating through Check On It and a short medley of Destiny’s Child hits (disappointingly, other songs are used as interludes, with just the dancers performing tracks like Survivor and Independent Women).
But tonight also shows how much Beyoncé’s image has changed following her barnstorming performance on last year’s The X-Factor final. Gone is the slightly aloof, ‘don’t-touch-me-I’m-famous’ air that hangs around most superstars, replaced instead by a more approachable demeanor. At one point she walks the entire length of the front row, shaking hands, cupping faces and wiping away tears of delight, whilst at others she throws out used towels and hands the mic over to allow some (hyperventilating) fans to scream lyrics back at her. There are also those endless pauses to ramp up the noise levels, but she can’t keep her cool – ultimately, a huge grin breaks out.
The show ends with a spectacular Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It), which is performed after a very funny video collection of people performing the dance routine on YouTube. The closing Halo is dedicated to Michael Jackson and drags on for slightly longer than necessary, but it can’t dilute a show that is simultaneously spellbinding, exhausting to watch and hugely slick. At the centre of everything, however, is Beyoncé, surely the planet’s greatest superstar bar none.