Photo by David Fisher/Shutterstock

Girls Aloud – O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London

Pop royalty squeeze an arena show into a former theatre with ease...

There’s no scope for advancing airborne motorbikes in a two-thousand capacity venue and pretty much everyone gets to feel like a gift-wrapped kitty cat without the option for the walkway into the crowd that was at the heart of Girls Aloud’s recent run of sell-out arena shows, carving out a VIP area at the front.

The return of Girls Aloud, cementing their place as one of the greatest pop groups of all time, has been a euphoric, cathartic and faintly chaotic experience for band and fans alike. What might have initially been cast as a nostalgia trip has become something much more urgent and current, entire audiences giving themselves up to the moment night after night. The fear, as articulated by Nicola on stage at one point, was that the ballot approach to ticketing for this O2 Priority event might not ensure they were performing to their biggest fans. They needn’t have worried; one of the evening’s most common conversational topics centred on which other nights of the tour everyone had attended. How that staging would translate to such an intimate venue was the other big question. 

Photo by Ash Knotek/Shutterstock

Mr Theo’s perfectly pitched late-Nineties, early-Noughties pop bangers DJ set has repeatedly proved that sometimes the most obvious idea is the best one, prompting mass singalonngs and limb-thrusting from the off. The grand elevated platforms and corresponding outfits of ‘Untouchable’ are sacrificed for the more bijou surroundings and a gleefully strident ‘The Show’ replaces it as the opener. Route one brilliance sets the tone and, frankly, it never lets up. Big acts in cosy places always face the dilemma of how to translate the scale, while also riding the inevitable wave of love produced by having your devoted faithful right there in front of you. The odd fluffed lighting cue and overly squashed dance routine aside, this fifteen-song set lost none of the magic witnessed in the enormodomes. If anything, the setting elevated it and the giddiness in the room was palpable. 

The three acts of the main set were preserved, each beautifully staged tribute to the much-missed Sarah Harding even more affecting with her four friends in such close proximity. Her remarkable presence on previous tours was noted and weaving Sarah into numerous songs ensures a legitimate channelling of grief, to which many append their own brushes with mortality and concerns accumulated across the more than two decades lived since the group first emerged from Popstars: The Rivals. If the powerful montage of classic Sarah moments that closes ‘Whole Lotta History’ hasn’t quite set everyone off, the recording of ‘I’ll Stand By You’ with her on lead vocals used as the finale of the second section ensures the necessary release. She is missed, so very much, but leaning into that so openly honours Sarah’s request that they mark the band’s anniversary even without her. How Cheryl, Kimberely, Nadine and Nicola have processed those emotions so often over the past month or so, we’ll likely never know, but the healing effect of doing it with the fans was never more evident than in this more heightened, personal environment. 

‘Sound Of The Underground’ was one hell of a mission statement back in 2002 and it is delivered with scorching intensity at the mid-point of the night, the mic stands thrust around with delight and a strong sense that this history means everything to these four remarkable women. The interactions and dynamic between them has been hearteningly positive throughout the whole run but, with less production to distract, their evident love for each other and collective identity was deeply moving to see. An unexpected hug here, a little glance for approval after a particularly impressive vocal part there – it’s a pleasure to be in their ebullient company. 

‘Jump’ very much did what it says on the tin and, whatever your thoughts on it as a very faithful cover, it routinely takes the roof off. ‘Something Kinda Ooooh’ just about won out against ‘Biology’ in the most dance moves from the original video successfully completed by a borderline delirious audience stakes, although the latter felt far more visceral out of the arena landscape. A moment of pure pop perfection, it still makes absolutely no sense and demonstrates the Xenomania cut-and-shut model more effectively than any other track in their immaculate body of work. These songs haven’t dated because they didn’t risk being too closely anchored to the era of their creation, wonky beats, wild synths and stylistic left turns at the core of it all. ‘No Good Advice’ has never been better and the rallying cry of ‘Something New’ works so well early in proceedings. 

Credit: Photo by Ash Knotek/Shutterstock

Amongst Nadine’s tirade against confetti and Kimberley’s observation that her theatre work makes her especially fond of stages like that of the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, one other fact must be acknowledged. Girls Aloud have never sung better than they are doing right now. Four-part vocal harmonies on ‘I’ll Stand By You’, rich, powerful verses for ‘Call The Shots’ and stately finale ‘The Promise’ all impress, that closing track combining a striking pause around Sarah’s “Here I am, walking primrose” line and a rapturous affirmation of the group’s place in so many lives. The knowledge that all of this is nearly over hangs in the air, but arms are aloft and en masse swaying is impossible to resist. The buzz that enveloped the building upon arrival, was only amplified at the evening’s end, smiles painted across slightly flustered, lightly sweaty faces as the reality of saying goodbye again was quietly pushed to one side. 

After Brighton Pride, who knows what the future holds for them? The Pyramid Stage as Sunday night headliners feels about right, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Even without new music, there’s still a huge appetite for such an incredible catalogue. As this one-off show proved, only underlining what had been achieved across the arena tour, these performances offer unity, affirmation and uncomplicated joy at a time when we all need a little more of that. 

Words: Gareth James
Photography: As Credited

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