First Night: Lady Gaga, MEN Arena, Manchester

Lady shows why she's the queen of pop
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The Independent Culture

It is a brave artist that trashes her stage show between legs of her first arena tour, but Lady Gaga is nothing if not a perfectionist and her gamble just about pays off on the first date of this European run.

Over the winter months, the US star's Monster Ball has wowed North American crowds, only for Gaga to try a different tack that she described on MTV as "more of a musical than a concert". Not that Stephen Sondheim need suffer any sleepless nights – this has more in common with a burlesque spectacle. Monster Ball is the summation of Gaga's pop confection, extrapolating her outlandish fashion sense into a whole stage show. Her production team, Haus of Gaga, have imposed their own inner stage on the arena circuit, within which a story supposedly unfolds – the star getting lost on her way to the party.

This, though, is mere window dressing for the core of Gaga's show – her unremitting party soundtrack. Even before she won three Brits on Tuesday night, this tour already had the feel of a victory procession. Garnering most awards at the annual music bash formed just the icing on the many-tiered cake of her success. She has made 2009 her own, shifting four million copies of debut album The Fame while outgunning the already established Lily Allen and newcomers Florence and The Machine and La Roux.

Gaga has achieved four number ones from her album by sticking to a tried and tested template of r'n'b beats with catchy pop hooks, with little evidence of the performance artist struggling to make an impact in New York clubs. While the hits are instantly recognisable, so has been her penchant for over-sized knickers and costumes that have grown more outlandish as her profile grew. Maybe such instant recognisability has come too easy for Stefani Germanotta, so Monster Ball's aim is to cement her arty credentials.

Her show is divided into acts, tableaux beginning with polished chrome scaffolding to represent the film set for a post-apocalyptic cityscape where Pamela Anderson might run a bar. Videos between the set and costume changes fail to fill the time necessary, leaving awkward longeurs, though the cast are expert enough to cope. Band and dancers form a constant whirl of New York movement and when one loses his helmet, he reaches down and replaces it one swift movement.

Gaga herself is on imperious form, displaying a powerful singing voice not readily apparent on the album. She is full-throated on the pumping anthems with an underlay of Big Apple grit. A soulful flavour comes through when she sits behind the piano for "Speechless", one of the darker tracks unveiled on the Fame Monster deluxe set of her album that at least provides some reasoning for the new set up. "This is for my father," she says cuttingly, "who loves Johnny Walker more than he loves me."

When Gaga finally reaches the Monster Ball, she discovers it is inhabited by a 20ft tentacled monster. An utterly gobsmacking finale, that might even form a commentary on her swift rise to fame.