THE BEGINNING

London’s Royal Opera House isn’t used to performances like this.

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Pet Shop Boys @ London, Royal Opera House, Wednesday 20 July

The Royal Opera House has’t seen anything like this since Björk graced its stage fifteen years ago – and she probably didn’t make use of hypnotic lighting backdrops, lasers and balloons – but it’s still surprising that Pet Shop Boys haven’t trodden these boards sooner. After all, they launched ‘Bilingual’ nearly twenty years ago with a three-week run at the Savoy Theatre. Neil Tennant may not have Pavarotti’s voice, nor the commanding presence of the Bolshoi, but as PSB’s arch entertainer, he brings a rare sense of cabaret to a usually-stuffy venue.

This four-night residency, dubbed ‘Inner Sanctum’, marks the live premier of material from the duo’s effervescent thirteenth album, ‘Super’. The LP’s highlight – the dark, elegiac ‘The Dictator Decides’ makes a timely appearance tonight. Revisiting one of PSB’s occasional themes – the existential ennui of the politically powerful – tonight’s performance sees Tennant don full Soviet demagogue garb for the occasion.

A tribute to “the pop kids”, who care little for the venue’s standard decorum, Inner Sanctum is marred as a gig experience at the hands of the ROH’s overly precious sound system, which can’t help but mute the night’s sense of occasion. Even the Purcell and Nyman-inspired ‘Love Is A Bourgeois Construct’, suffers quiet death by PA system.

The staging, courtesy of long-time collaborators Es Devlin (design) and Lynne Page (choreography) is immaculate. Starting with a pair of worryingly Spinal Tap-esque pods, which rotate to reveal Tennant and Chris Lowe (the only time the latter moves all night), the minimalist set still manages to take up the entire stage.

As a piece of theatre, Inner Sanctum is perfectly paced, but as a gig, it’s equal parts joyous, confounding and frustrating. ‘Behaviour’, PSB’s high water mark, is the only album not represented in the 23-song setlist, and the appearance of ‘Electric’’s arms-aloft anthem ‘Vocal’ is jarring as a follow-up to the previous 20-minute stretch of low-key ballads.

Then again, if you possess as much pop savvy as Pet Shop Boys, you can afford curveballs. Four years on from London 2012, the once-anthemic ‘Winner’ receives a stunning, pathos-laden reworking, and ‘Home And Dry’ receives its first performance since 2007, bringing a tear to the eye of at least one audience member, whose review you’re currently reading. Meanwhile, obscurities like ‘In The Night’ and ‘The Sodom and Gomorrah Show’, from 2006’s underrated ‘Fundamental’, are received as rapturously as the go-go dancer-augmented ‘New York City Boy’.

But the arrival of ‘It’s A Sin’ heralds the night’s most truly unfuckwithable stretch: a victory lap of Tennant and Lowe’s most imperial hits. A troupe of around twenty dancers in multi-coloured inflatable suits posture their way through ‘Left To My Own Devices’ and ‘Go West’, while a final encore of ‘Domino Dancing’ and ‘Always On My Mind’ is a testament to just how much of history’s most perfect pop the Pet Shop Boys are responsible for.

A closing thought: you may be wondering why the band’s signature hit ‘West End Girls’ is absent from that hall of fame finale. It’s because they played it second. As the greatest, most intelligent pop act this island will ever produce, only Pet Shop Boys would dare pull a move like that… and only Pet Shop Boys could get away with it.

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