Stadium of Light, Sunderland
YOU CAN TELL it's a chilly evening in Tyne and Wear. Some of the women even have their shoulders covered. It's the first night of Britain's biggest ever arena tour. Not only is the crowd chiefly female, but the atmospheric level of hormones is sufficient to stun low-flying bird-life. The menfolk, one supposes, are mostly here in tow, and expecting a long night. They'll get one. But if they aren't having fun by the end, they must be clinically incapable of it.
Inviting the UK's best pure pop band of the last 30 years to reprise their recent, brilliant show as your support is either foolhardy or very confident. For the fully remustered Take That, it proves to be the latter. Good as Pet Shop Boys are, the headliners aren't in the remotest danger of being upstaged.
Were Take That simply to arrive and, perched atop a wave of affection and adulation, surf through their last three albums of superior, generic pop plus a few old favourites, this would be a dreary affair indeed.
That's certainly my fear when Gary Barlow, Howard Donald, Jason Orange and Mark Owen take to the stage kitted out like your standard mum pleasing cabaret act - waistcoats ahoy - and start belting out Rule The World. It isn't alleviated when white-clad dancers deliver an all too familiar sub-ballet routine. Nor by the realisation of just how much Barlow sounds like Davy Jones of The Monkees.
Then, as it were, everything changes. Shine sees the stage apron and extended platform usurped by a deliciously bonkers panto number themed in the vaguest fashion around Alice in Wonderland. It features bees, trees - Why bees? Why trees? It offers rhyme, if not reason - and a five-man Chinese Dragon-style caterpillar blowing bubbles from a calabash pipe.
Thereafter, all bets are off. Nothing, it seems, is too random or doollaly to be included for the hell of it. A giant mechanical man, a breakdancing human chess set, kung-fu monks, an altogether dazzling wire-bound display of vertical aqua-gymnastics. Had any of it the slightest
pretension to significance, or narrative, it might be embarrassing. Instead, it's a wild, happy jumble of hyper-kinetic spectacle, purely for its own sake.
The only meaningful story required is the band's complete reunion. Which is partly what stops them from becoming lost within the trappings of their own show. But mainly, they elude it by dint of being damn good performers, individually and as a unit. When I first saw them at Wembley Arena in the early 90s they were several cuts above every rival boy band. If anything, they're better now. The big question here is how they're going to cope with the return of Robbie Williams, regarding whom the expression “elephant in the room” might apply equally to his career and his ego.
The matter is resolved as tidily as possible with a three part set. After Take That as a foursome, we get Williams solo, then the original five-man Take That. Williams is the nearest surviving thing to Freddie Mercury, in terms of the presence, exuberance and music-hall humour he can bring to a giant venue. As well as making evident his joy at being back on tour after a long lay-off, his barnstorming five-song turn, stuffed with risque gags and filthy asides, reminds you why he departed from this otherwise mannerly band in the first place.
“Please get out your hymn books and prayer mats,” is his typically sardonic introduction to Angels. It hints he's as sick of it as some of us are, but can't escape it any more than we can. There's pandemonium when he plays it. There might be riots if he didn't.
Putting Robbie back in the Take That box is going to be quite some conjuring trick. The five of them carry it off with considerable grace, and - barring a brief, testy outburst from Williams - surprisingly little spite, syrup or hokum. By the time we reach Pray, Gary Barlow's supreme achievement and a truly great pop song, any lingering sense of awkwardness has vanished. The five are one.
Take That's whole existence was predicated on making contrivance seem natural, and they do it superbly, still. This ain't rock'n'roll, but you won't get more bang for your light entertainment buck anywhere.