Performing at the O2 …

… is not something I would ever want to do. I have no desire to perform, and the irony is that I do perform, in tiny ways in my local community – with the occasional murder mystery under my belt and a terrible memory of playing an ugly sister in a panto that will forever be seared into my memory.

People who perform for a living are beyond astounding; to be stared at by so many people, who are expecting you to entertain them for the next two and a half hours is astounding. How do performers get any enjoyment out of that? I mean, they clearly do, but I just watch people on stage and truly respect their craft – when it’s done well, of course. Performers who can see the limits of their own talents are toe-curling in their awkwardness, and when I am subjected to that kind of show, I just want to be anywhere else but in that moment.

Thankfully, I spent an evening this week thoroughly enjoying a live performers by two entertainers who are – or at least seem to be – absolute naturals on the stage. Michael Ball and Alfie Boe are two singers, but that doesn’t do them justice. That’s like calling Shakespeare just another author; he wasn’t, he was a master craftsman, and I will be the first to say that Ball and Boe are two very talented, clever men with a clear sense of joy in their work.

In a 20,000-seater stadium such as the O2 in south-east London, it takes a an act with a respectable, loyal following to even get close to filling it. With these two men, however, their followers are indeed large, and are indeed very loyal, and you wouldn’t get that with “passing trade” performers who are here one day and gone the next. Ball & Boe have spent years carefully cultivating their following, not because they had to but because they wanted to – their love of their audience is very apparent.

One of my very great pals, Diana, is a Michael Ball fan. A serious Michael Ball fan. She would quite possibly faint if she ever met him face-to-face; she began panting slightly when she saw him on stage just this week, and seemed to be sucking rather heavily on a sherbert lemon, but the less said about that the better.

Back in February of 2017, Di mentioned that tickets had gone on sale for a tour that he was doing with Alfie Boe. The two men have worked together on a couple of albums and a previous tour, I’m given to understand, and I’m enough of a fan of good music to be open to listening to any sort of music, even if it is for the first time. Alfie Boe’s style I know slightly from his time in Les Miserable – which I know Michael Ball also featured in, although I know less of his work. That is entirely my failing.

They had dates booked all over the country, but we decided to go for the London date – 14th December 2017 – as it’s a city we know well and both enjoy spending time in, and neither of us had ever actually been into the O2 arena itself where the two men were performing. Ironically, we’ve walked over the O2 on a challenge and perused the periphery, but never been inside the very centre.

After a very busy year for both of us, Di and I got together and quickly put together a plan of action for the weekend. As the concert was on a Thursday night, we decided to stay up in London a couple of days after the concert to make the most of the weekend (I’m actually writing this in my hotel room on the Friday morning), and worked out our Thursday to allow us to explore Greenwich in a bit more detail, as it’s an area of London easily (and woefully) neglected in terms of promotion sometimes.

After a brief exploration of the Christmas Market there (now there was a perfect example of something that was over-marketed if ever I’ve seen something) and the Greenwich Market (lovely but over-priced; there was a child’s author there selling her picture book, which I would have purchased in solidarity and support – and because it looked good – but there’s no way I’m paying £12 for a picture book), we stopped at Bill’s Restaurant for a sport of dinner. Now that was good; I had a halloumi burger and chips – one of the nicest halloumi burgers I’ve ever had – and Di had macaroni cheese, which by all reports was very good as well. The service was also rather lovely, which most certainly helps, so I’ll definitely be going back there at some point.

I digress. After a sojourn on the Emirates Cable Car – which gave us a stunning view of south-east London at night from overhead – and a brief moment of air-sickness on my behalf (unusual for me) – when I became aware of the cable car’s swaying motion near the end which turned my stomach rather drastically for about thirty seconds before I regained my composure (alright, when the cable car let us off) – we arrived at the O2.

My word, what a venue; the main arena can comfortably hold 20,000 people and change (there is definitely room for additional seating if the owners ever wanted to really cram people in, and I hope they don’t, as it felt comfortable despite the size of the thing), and that’s just one part of the entire construction. It has a cinema, untold restaurants where you could eat every day for a month and more and not have to repeat one, and a smaller arena that holds a mere, trifling 2,000 people for more intimate gigs. What rather astounded me was the amount of building work going on inside and around the O2; I’d be fascinated to know precisely what is being done to enhance and increase the site. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on that development.

The tickets told us that the show started at 7.30pm, so we had a bit of time beforehand. That was good, because it allowed Di and I to investigate the venue a little bit, get into the inner sanctum that only people with tickets are permitted to enter, and to people watch for a little while. I was incredibly impressed with the organisation; staff known as “Angels” – replete with white feathered wings and, now I think about it, entirely female – were on hand throughout the entire O2, from public entrance to ticket-holder-only areas, to direct lost souls to where they needed to go. A slightly kitsch title perhaps, but their presence – as well as the plentiful and liveried Customer Safety Team – ensured that everyone got where they need to go. As something of an obsessive over good customer service, this was really good to see. Even Di – who is even more keenly-eyed on customer service than me – was quietly nodding her head in approval. All gone on that front.

They certainly had their eye on the commercial front; well, they are entirely a commercial organisation after all. I can’t begrudge them that, but one figure I’m aware of is £7.50 for two packs of crisps and a small bottle of water. This is breathtakingly expensive, made much worse by the fact that you’re not allowed to bring refreshments of any description into the inner venue. That’s just madness, except you live entirely in a commercialised world where it makes entirely logical sense to shut off all pipelines aside from anyone other than you. I’m not saying that I agree with that, as that logic is flawed – many people will actively resist paying those prices and so would prefer to just go without rather than consume something so expensive – and irrational. Still, I actively dislike that ruling, and so do plenty of others; in fact, I saw a few people having smuggled in food and drink via the linings in their jacket. so there are always opportunities to get around stupid rules.

The actual auditorium is fantastic – breath-takingly huge, in fact. Twenty thousand is a hard number to get your mind around, especially when those seats are raked down and stretched out in front, up above, and all around you. In short, 20,000 – or thereabouts – is a lot of people.

That was one thing I was surprised about; a few seats were empty. Not many, I grant you, but Di had an one to her right. At an event like that, I would have expected every single place to have been taken well in advance and, when situations changed and people weren’t able to come, for others to snap the tickets up almost immediately. However, I guess situations changes, and yes, people might not travel by themselves or want to be split up from their friends. That said, a guy came on his own and sat to my left; I suspect he was younger than me, was very pleasant, and seemed very excited about the prospect of seeing Ball and Boe perform live. Good man; he didn’t need to rely on anyone else to empower him in coming along, and that I applaud.

I have to say that, despite being in the final row in the stalls, neither Di nor myself could have asked for better seats, except if they had been right at the front – and that might not have been the best idea, as I suspect that Di might have been rather overcome with emotional and even I undoubtedly wouldn’t have been able to restrain her. Before you knew it, she would have been up on the stage trying to force a wedding ring on Michael Ball’s ring finger. It would have taken a lot of explaining to do, and the paperwork would have been difficult to crack.

Being right at the back, we hadn’t expected to be able to see very much of the stage at all, at least not without binoculars and a powerful squint. But the O2’s floor plans don’t fully explain the majesty of 20,000 seats being very elegantly tiered upwards, including the last third of the stalls, so that we were looking down at the stage ahead of us and had no-one behind us to drop popcorn down our necks. It was lovely to be in such a clear space, and I’d definitely recommend it. If you ever got to a concert there, I strongly suggest – unless you’re absolutely desperate to sit in the front row or a box (although why you’d want to do the second is beyond me, and they were further away – UP! – than where we were, and on really awkward angles, so their views must have been really limited; so that) – then go for Row W. Whilst sitting at the back might not sound like huge amounts of fun, they’re really good seats.

With so many people coming into a huge space, then it’s going to take time to get them all seated, but – if I may be so bold – there’s such a thing as forward planning. The show ended up starting at 7.50pm, twenty minutes later than planned, due to the sheer volume of people piling in through all the entrances. It was annoying, to be frank; the instructions with the tickets were very clear, that people should be there well in advance o the advertised start time. It shows a complete lack of consideration and planning from the people who were late in; I know that sounds harsh, and I can respect the fact that there were people with disabilities (mobility issues predominantly) who were struggling down the many, many stairs, but the start time isn’t a surprise, people. 7.30pm wasn’t sprung on us at the last minute as a decision five minutes before we went in; Di and I booked our tickets back in February, and we certainly weren’t the first ones by any stretch of the imagination. We were told when the concert was due to start, so we got there early and made sure we’d claimed our seats by 7pm. To then be kept waiting for nearly an hour by lack of planning on the part of other people was tiring and annoying beyond words.

But that’s by the by, because then the show start and it was impressively good. Michael Ball and Alfie Boe are both very good singers in their own right, and are equally good as a partnership. I don’t know what brought them together in the first place, but whether it was kismet, fate, alcohol, or commercial link-ups, I don’t know, but it’s a good blend.

I’m not musical expert, please don’t misunderstand me; I can’t sing, can’t dance, and can’t even play the spoons in tune. So I’m not writing this from an expert’s point of view, merely an enthusiastic amateur and lover of music as a listener. Their voices were very different, and that allowed for a lovely blending together, and they seemed passionate about the songs. Many, I was surprised to discover, I didn’t know. There were some covers of songs I liked a lot – I’m very possessive about my music – and Ball and Boe’s interpretations didn’t offend me; that’s a compliment, trust me. They seemed to genuinely enjoy each others’ company and, whilst they seemed to have a penchant for silly chat that engaged with their fans, they were very clearly there for the music, and that was the most important thing.

Inviting a youth choir onto the stage to help them end the two halves was a clever move; the choir were engaging, lively, and very powerful. I would have actually listened to them entirely by themselves, truth be told, as they deserve a higher profile than they currently have. To my shame, I can’t actually remember the name of the choir – I knew I should have taken a notepad into the auditorium – but when I do, I’ll make sure I acknowledge them.

My pal Di is a great Michael Ball fan (I’m sure she won’t mind me saying that), and I can understand why; the man’s a showman with an excellent voice. His ability to connect directly with his audience is something many performers could learn from. Alfie Boe is also excellent; he has equal showman qualities, and he has a drier wit – at least on stage – against his compadre’s expressive humour. But both have rich talents that transported there into the moment, and see Alfie Boe move into the audience near the end of the second half was lovely; there seemed to be a lot of very genuine affection in the form of hugs, handshakes, high-fives … I was expecting a few ladies’ accoutrements to appear at one point, but people restrained themselves. Thankfully.

So yes, a brilliant concert; it’s a pleasure to watch music being performed live, and this was was clever, energetic, and lively.

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