There is a memorable landscape shot of the former Millennium Dome in Plan B’s Ill Manors, where the massive structure built under Tony Blair’s government to mark the year 2000 represents a London completely alien to the desperate and sometimes depraved characters who populate the gangland culture depicted in the film.
Set in Plan B’s own birth place of Forest Gate, last year’s film (which was actually well under way by the time of the 2011 riots) highlights the chasm of inequalities which exist in the UK’s capital city, depicting a disparate group of people in a desolate London completely untouched by glittering events such as the Olympics.
While Plan B has gone to pains to emphasise that the film isn’t autobiographical, it’s clear that it was at least heavily informed by his personal experience and observations. There is no little power, then, in him bringing his tour promoting the film’s accompanying soundtrack album to the O2 Arena, housed of course within the aforementioned Dome. Typically home to impossibly famous international artists ranging from Madonna to Rihanna, it’s impossible not to be heartened by the fact that Plan B’s socially conscious music can attract such a large audience. Still, it’s a Saturday night and it’s clear that the audience here are ready to be entertained – the atmosphere is charged with a tense anticipation which explodes in waves of release when the house lights dim and a suitably cinematic introductory video begins to play.
Given the contrast between the polished soul of 2010’s The Defamation Of Strickland Banks and the gritty dystopian hip-hop of Ill Manors, the question of how Plan B will marry the material in a coherent set is a curious one. It quickly becomes obvious that he’s not going to try – instead the show is split into two distinct halves, each devoted to a different album. His cinematic aspirations are heavily stamped on the evening with each half opening with a ‘Plan B presents…’ credit (and even a modification of the famous 20th Century Fox logo and fanfare).
The first hour of the evening, then, is a straight re-telling of the Strickland Banks ‘story’ accompanied by videos depicting the fall of the fictional singer. The audience respond warmly to the material from the triple-platinum album, roaring every word of the catchy She Said back at the stage and dancing furiously to the strident The Recluse. Plan B himself is in fine voice, proving to be a charismatic and powerful showman. If there is a complaint it’s that the enormous video screens ultimately prove to be a distraction, completely dwarfing the performers on stage. Indeed, given that the visuals are overwhelmingly the conventional music videos for each song and the performances themselves are so slick, there is sometimes a sense of watching a giant music video channel rather than a concert. Still, the energy in the arena is impossible to deny and in moments like the fiery Prayin’ the evening leaps up a gear.
As the section ends Plan B departs the stage and is replaced by a beat boxer. As talented as he is, this ten minute interlude seems ill-fitted to an arena and loses the attention of much of the audience. It’s a relief, then, when a BBFC certification screen heralds the opening of the Ill Manors segment and Plan B returns with a portentous delivery of I Am the Narrator. This half proves to be a far more involving effort in terms of the band performance, with other singers and rappers (including support act Labrinth on the dramatic Playing With Fire) augmenting Plan B’s own superlative rapping.
The video screens, however, play excerpts from the Ill Manors film and, as relevant as this may be, there is an air of discomfort as, for example, Plan B performs Deepest Shame while we are shown a sequence of a woman being forced into prostitution. It’s brave in that it’s impossible to imagine that the O2 Arena has seen anything quite like it before, but it underlines the problem of devoting half of such a large gig to what is undeniably bleak material. It’s no wonder that the audience erupts as the angry, stabbing introduction to the brilliant Ill Manors (song) begins. It’s one of the evening’s highlights, managing to combine the frantic social commentary with crowd-pleasing theatrics (men holding torch flames prowl the stage) and it seems that almost everyone is jumping.
An encore featuring End Credits and Pieces (Plan B’s two singles with Chase & Status), the anthemic Stay Too Long and a reprise of Ill Manors is a crowd-pleasing end which highlights how a more integrated set could potentially have blown the roof from the arena. Nonetheless you have to admire Plan B’s single-minded vision and his refusal to back away from the aspects of his home city which many would rather remain oblivious to. British music needs more of this but, tonight, Plan B demonstrates that he has talent enough to conquer the world.