When Britney Spears struts on stage at London’s Roundhouse tonight, it’s the first time she’s performed live in the UK for five years. A lot has changed in that time: she’s dropped the brilliantly ridiculous single ‘Work Bitch’, released one of her best albums in the form of this month’s sharp and surprising ‘Glory’, and launched an enormously successful Las Vegas residency show that’s now racked up over 200 performances. As tonight’s relentlessly energetic set for Apple Music Festival proves, Britney has also got her groove back. The woman who acknowledges in 2006 hit ‘Piece Of Me’ that she’s been “Miss American dream since I was 17” is never going to be pop’s most spontaneous live act, but tonight’s slightly condensed version of her Vegas show really plays to her strengths as a performer.
Britney’s band play from raised platforms on either side of the stage, allowing her to be flanked by 15 dancers as she delivers a succession of high-energy routines that pause only for costume changes. These days, Britney’s shtick is equal parts sexy and athletic: she works a stripper pole for ‘I’m A Slave 4 U’, but the biggest cheers come whenever she’s lifted triumphantly above the stage by her dancers, or delivers a really slick bit of choreography. She’s also learned how to tease without quite going the full Miley Cyrus. During a bondage-themed performance of ‘Freakshow’, she brings on a clearly delighted audience member and walks him across the stage playfully on a leash.
The brilliant set list slots in nearly all of her biggest hits (‘Womanizer’ fizzes at the start, ‘…Baby One More Time’ supplies a mid-set high, and ‘Toxic’ gets everyone singing at the end) with room for a few fan-pleasing deep cuts like 2003’s suggestive electro gem ‘Touch Of My Hand’. At one point, Britney even busts some moves to a fun medley of Missy Elliott bangers. Her show’s visuals are often brilliant and sometimes a bit bizarre: it’s hard to know why she’s performing ‘Me Against The Music’ against giant bamboo screens that have just been wheeled on stage, but at the same time, it kind of works.
The elephant in the room at any Britney gig has always been the “M” word: miming. But at this stage in her career, the relevant question isn’t so much, “Is she singing live now?” as, “Does the crowd care either way?” No one arrives tonight expecting to be dazzled by her vocal technique; they come expecting pop spectacle, awesome dancing and a set that maximises affection for the best pop star they grew up with. On that level, there’s no denying that Britney Spears has really delivered.