Birmingham NEC

If Steps have already put their turkey in the oven, it'll be awfully dry by Christmas...

Opening for a band like tonight’s headliners isn’t the easiest job in the world, but GIRLS@PLAY wade in with tunes that Shania Twain would skin a leopard for and pull it off nicely. For those of you yet to be acquainted with Millennial Village Persons Vicky, Rita, Lynsey, Lisa-Jay and Shelley, prepare to have your mind boggled: Girls@Play are a high-concept leap into previously unthinkable levels of pop role-play involving a traffic cop, a businesswoman, a cowboy, a mechanic and a pilot. Audience members reluctant to interact with the Girls are warned that they risk arrest from Lynsey. (In the end they’re let off with a caution).

If you’re still not convinced that Girls@Play are likely to blow off socks at 100 paces, consider this: they cover Mel & Kim’s ’80s Number One blinder ‘Respectable’, a stroke of almost unutterable genius that paves the way for ‘Out Of My Head’ (which sounds like Kylie) and ‘Airhead’, a song about thick men containing the line [I]”I’ve got the brains, he’s got the looks/He watches TV, I read my books”[/I]. Pop stars (except Westlife) often claim to be having “a bit of fun”, and that they’re “not taking it too seriously”. Girls@Play don’t need to lie. This is fun. It’s hilarious. But it’s also really good. Which tends to help.

By the time STEPS do appear tonight, the video screens on either side of the stage have already been busily plugging the new album, the next single, the merchandise range, the official website and a premium-rate phoneline. If there were any doubt that this is a Christmas tour, the fact that the band make their entrance as their own dolls, breaking free from giant versions of the boxes you’ll find in Woolworths, clears things up. Even parents in the audience thick enough to have bought themselves tickets rather than hit the bar and let their kids get on with it will be getting the hint by now.

The majority of the show centres around a medievally-themed set – stone backdrops, chandeliers, huge staircases and the like, inspired by the video for new single (and tonight’s showstopper) ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’. ‘Steptacular’ is largely ignored – ‘Deeper Shade Of Blue’ (which sees H arriving from a doorway suspended from the ceiling) is the only proper track they lift – in favour of ‘Buzz’ songs and the showcasing of individual band members’ songs. H consumes most of the budget for his number: a stage-engulfing Egyptian backdrop drops down the back and the star (sporting Tutenkhamen’s mask) is marched on sedan chair from the back of the arena for ‘Learn To Love Again’. The fact that the song has nothing whatsoever to do with Egypt, even by way of pun, makes the sight even more acceptable.

Lee abseils from the ceiling, Lisa bangs her way through a live version of Mariah Carey?s ?All I Want For Christmas (Is You)?, Claire executes a perfect costume change in five seconds flat – and for a show with this many set pieces the first night glitches are few and far between. At one point Claire’s top falls open at the back, while ‘Better Best Forgotten’ cuts out ten seconds before the end leaving the band’s live vocals suspended in nothingness. Towards the end, Claire asks the audience if they recognise a hands-by-head dance move: thousands of fans scream “‘Tragedy’!!'” as one. Except the dance move in question is actually from ‘Last Thing On My Mind’, and Claire is left guffawing over the song’s opening notes. Does any of this spoil the show? Of course not.

A quick burst of ‘Stomp’ then they’re off – only to return in Christmas mode. Snow falls, trees drop from the ceiling. H does ‘Sleigh Ride’, Claire does ‘Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree’, then there’s ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ and Lee belts through ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’. Sadly, around 364 days a year are not Christmas. And this is the middle of November.

A spectacular first night to a lengthy tour, but if Steps have already put their turkey in the oven, it’ll be awfully dry by Christmas.

Peter Robinson