Live Report: Robbie Williams – BST Hyde Park

Up close with a complex British pop icon...

In the new London stage play Rock DJ, premiered this month at the New Diorama Theatre, the only surviving human life on earth is a cultish group of Robbie Williams superfans. Shielded from the destruction by the accident of watching a Robbie tribute act in the Barnsley Metrodome, the devotees – the “Escapologists” – chant the lyrics of Rudebox like religious mantras, and host intense analytic sessions unpacking the lyrics to forgotten album tracks like ‘Nan’s Song’.

Meanwhile, over at London’s Hyde Park, a very different performance is taking place. Today’s sold-out 2024 British Summer Time show is a returning victory lap for Williams’ XXV tour, an autobiographical journey through the singer’s uneasily intertwined career highs and personal lows. “There’s going to be the highest of highs and the lowest of lows,” says the singer, dressed entirely in white, “it will be very bleak for me and very emotional for you.” Having recently turned 50, the singer is pitched somewhere between arch vulnerability (“I will only know if I can be vulnerable with you if you can sing along a cappella to one of my lesser-known hits”) and joking about whether the Hyde Park audience even remembers him (they clearly do.) 

There’s a brief section on his formative years in Take That, showing a clip from the saucy ‘Do What U Like’ video, slowing down on Jason Orange’s nipples and pausing on Robbie’s own teenage backside. Messing with the imagery of his own history, during an extended meditation on Williams’ famous Glastonbury 1995 appearance, he dons a wonderfully tacky diamante remix of the red Adidas tracksuit jacket he wore then. Though crowd-pleasing and nostalgic, this section is arguably where the show comes undone. There are four covers in tonight’s set: a holiday camp ‘Land of A Thousand Dances’, ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’, being joined by Gaz Coombes for Supergrass’ ‘Alright’ and a genuinely excellent run-through of ‘Parklife’ with Danny Dyer (the latter doing the Phil Daniels bit, obv). It’s fun, but overstuffed and threatens to topple the concept of the show, telling us something about nostalgia but something less about Robbie’s journey.

Much better, though, is ‘Advertising Space’. “At what point did you realise,” sings Williams, “that everybody loved your life but you?”. Ostensibly about Elvis’ downfall, the 2005 single is a powerful and sensitive comment on fame at its most fatal, underscored by a backdrop projecting tributes to Prince, David Bowie, Keith Flint, Amy Winehouse and Matthew Perry. It adds gravity to the show’s theme of hard-won survival, like receiving a sudden and unexpected gut-punch by an end of the pier entertainer. Feel, here delivered suddenly without backing dancers or even much of a backdrop, is stark and nerve-raw in front of the 65,000 strong audience, a hymn to neediness in excelsis. 

Towards the show’s close, as Williams sits in Zen mode at the end of the stage, a monologue about self-hatred and his own mental health carries more weight – even a confrontational energy – than most celebrity confession. “Thank you for helping me remain on the planet,” he says, to enormous applause. ‘She’s The One’, a song Williams barely liked during its imperial success, is delivered as a tribute to two female fans in the audience who, really, stand in for the singer’s large female audience (speaking of which, perceptive ears will note that the grimly sexist ‘the purpose of a woman is to love her man’ lyric in Kids has been repurposed to the better ‘the purpose of a woman is to love herself.’) 

A fizzing ‘Rock DJ’ is a reminder that some of Williams’ biggest hits deviated sharply with the sad-lad ballad template that is his enduring legacy. Tonight’s set could have made room for a few more moments in his back catalogue where Williams stretched himself creatively, like the still underrated ‘She’s Madonna’. No matter, though. All of human life on earth may not be reduced to a cultish group of Robbie survivors just yet, but in this corner of Hyde Park – as a singer takes stock of a messy but enduring body of work about his own fame and survival – are you not entertained? 

Words: Fergal Kinney
Photo Credit: Liz Gander

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