Katy Perry review – desperate pop pantomime boosted by bangers

O2 Arena, London
Giant flamingos and comedy skits baffle in a show that works best when the energetic star sticks to the hits

Katy Perry finds herself in a tricky position vis-a-vis her day job. One of the most successful pop stars of the decade with nine US chart-toppers and 13 UK Top 10 singles to date, she’s used to letting her gold-plated hits act like placeholders while an identity is constructed behind them. However, last year’s muddled, banger-free Witness album brought the facade crashing down, leaving Perry mumbling about “purposeful pop” and undertaking a bizarre four-day Big Brother-style live stream in which she underwent therapy, did yoga with Mitchell from TV’s Modern Family and cooked meatballs with Gordon Ramsay. What had appeared effortless during her imperial phase (circa 2010’s Teenage Dream) suddenly carried a whiff of pop’s kryptonite: desperation.

The Witness album’s one positive, however, is that its cultural impact was so minimal – the few album tracks she plays tonight pass by with barely a hint of recognition – that the live show isn’t hampered by an album-related story arc. Instead, Perry, in full-on escapist mode, upends a metaphorical toy box and scatters its neon-hued contents around the arena, turning each corner into a cross-section of the Las Vegas strip. It’s a full-on sensory overload that baffles as much as it entertains. For reasons no one can quite fathom, for example, two dancers join her for Hot N Cold dressed as giant flamingos. During Bon Appétit she reclines on a giant salad leaf and is doused in salt and pepper before being consumed by a Jeff Koons-esque venus fly trap. I Kissed a Girl, meanwhile, sees her ascend into the parted, cherry chapsticked lips of a hovering mouth before they clamp shut.

‘Absorbed into the madness’ ... Perry at the O2.
‘Absorbed into the madness’ ... Perry at the O2. Photograph: Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP


Often Perry is absorbed into the madness rather than controlling it. As a result the show walks the line between pop and pantomime, veering too close to the latter during an extended “comedy” routine with Left Shark, the inept dancer turned meme who stole Perry’s Super Bowl half-time performance back in 2015. Swish Swish, the lukewarm diss track released before Perry sent a literal olive branch to former nemesis Taylor Swift, meanwhile, descends into an episode of It’s a Knockout, with Perry and a “drunk hot dad” from the audience playing basketball against each other (she loses). Both tangents deflate the show’s momentum – especially the former, which follows an incredible run of undeniable bangers that segues from Dark Horse into Teenage Dream into California Gurls. It’s a breathless reminder of a pop star at full pelt.

It’s there in flashes during the effervescent disco-pop of Chained to the Rhythm, which finds Perry joined, as she was at last year’s Brit awards, by two giant effigies in suits. This time, however, they’re not made to resemble May and Trump, but generic businessmen, making the song’s political allusions even more vague. By the time she shouts “wake up” at us hapless sheep in the audience your face can’t help but contort into the eye-roll emoji you half expect to see pop up as a prop at any moment.

Perry’s on safer ground during the show’s few slower moments, gliding over the crowd on top of a multicoloured planet for the lovely Wide Awake. Unfortunately this is followed by an extended speech, delivered in a mockney accent, about her love of English breakfasts that includes the line “Heinz means beans”. Not pop’s best singer or dancer, and with her confidence knocked, it’s as if Perry has decided her real talent lies in children’s TV presenting. In the end it’s left to Firework – her iron-clad empowerment anthem – to send everyone home feeling uplifted. It does the trick, but only just. Perry may be working as hard as ever but the rewards are diminishing.

• At O2 Arena, London, on 15 June. Box office: 0844 856 0202. Then touring.

Contributor

Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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