A stunning, immersive, career-spanning experience...

For a group tonight performing over three decades into their career at a packed out O2 Arena, Pet Shop Boys were never even meant to be a live outfit. Though the overwhelming majority of tonight’s set is comprised of material from the duo’s much-vaunted “imperial phase”, these hits were only performed live once that phase had ended in 1991. Indeed, in an arena much like tonight’s in 1999 - but instead facing half-empty audiences and a bankrupt promoter - Tennant and Lowe very nearly called it a day. Though Pet Shop Boys in 2022 may appear every bit a British institutions, like many British institutions their endurance may appear inevitable whilst in fact being anything but. Indeed, that an outfit famously tetchy about nostalgia and looking backwards are even doing a Greatest Hits set is suggestive of a rapprochement with their own institution status, as well as the fact that they are now on the front foot from three successful, critically-acclaimed albums produced in collaboration with superproducer Stuart Price. Price is musical director of tonight’s Dreamworld show - credited with making Pet Shop Boys a fully electronic act under his stewardship, tonight’s arrangements are harder, sleeker and owe much to the group’s own remixes.  

The show begins with flashing lights and a sample of Chris Lowe’s deadpan Blackpool accent speaking the opening lyrics to 'Love Comes Quickly'. This trick is repeated throughout a show which aims to create a kaleidoscopic and cohesive extended universe of Pet Shop Boys hits. “In Dreamworld being boring is a sin,” purrs Tennant by way of an introductory monologue-come-manifesto for the next two hours, “where West End Girls meet New York City Boys.” For opener 'Suburbia' - with its invincible chorus masking nightmare prophecies of ‘the slums of the future’ - the pair stand in classic Pet Shop Boys formation, side-by-side, with large upside metallic forks masking their faces.

In spite of this, tonight’s staging is more low-key than recent previous Pet Shop Boys live outings. This is not a set that requires gimmickry or high theatrics to maintain audience attention span. Tom Scott’s stage design - currently designer on the Playhouse’s new production of Cabaret and hired after Tennant was impressed by his work on Lucy Prebble’s A Very Expensive Poison - plays wonderfully with Pet Shop Boys’ imagery. Two street lamps serve as either moody street scene for 'West End Girls' or campy kitchen sink theatre for a terrific 'What Have I Done To Deserve This', underlining the role of dark city streets as the arteries of Pet Shop Boys’ lyrics. Brilliantly, stage hands (roadies feels too rockist a term for Pet Shop Boys) are dressed as brickies in hi-vis and hard hats. As for Tennant, his outfits run the full gamut from high end flight host to Berghain sugardaddy before finishing on dour Northern bouncer coming out of retirement for one last job.

Reflecting Pet Shop Boys’ fidelity to their dance music roots, Lowe is elevated to a DJ riser at the back of the stage where he will stay for the majority of the set. Those dance music roots are given their best expression during a terrific pairing of 2013 track Vocal - a paen to the unfashionable joys of vocal house music - and 1989 single 'It's Alright', a cover of an early rave anthem by Sterling & Void. “The lyrics were specific to 1989” points out Tennant, “and somehow, they apply today.” Tennant is right - its reference to “people in Eurasia on the brink of oppression”, and its vague but poignant hope that things will be alright feels startlingly moving. This is not the only reference to Russia’s war with Ukraine, the lyrics to West End Girls are subtly changed to “from Mariupol to the Kyiv Station.”

The set contains other ghosts too. Note the Derek Jarman directed video for 'Rent' aired in full during that track - recently, you could watch that video as part of Manchester Art Gallery’s Jarman retrospective - and the umbilical cord of Jealousy and Being Boring, which both reference the life of Tennant’s childhood friend Christopher Dowell who died of AIDS related complications at the height of Pet Shop Boys’ success.

For all the welcome innovations of pop - and indeed the way that pop music is written about - over the last decade, tonight’s set is a curious reminder that the mainstream of pop is presently lagging behind in terms of scope and subject matter. Survey the themes addressed tonight - war, economics, Catholic guilt, AIDS, sexual repression and the suburbs. Even the covers catalogue a remarkable breadth from the Village People to Stephen Sondheim. In recent interviews, Tennant has voiced his disdain for pop stars whose only subject matter includes themselves and perhaps their entourages. As the O2 Arena resounds with the final chimes of 'Being Boring', tonight acts not only as a celebration of British pop’s most singular and effective export, but for pop with ideas above its station and a heightened curiosity about the world around it.

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Words: Fergal Kinney
Photo Credit: Pelle Crépin

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