With his slicked hair, thrusting jaw and fizzing energy, Robbie Williams is entering middle-age as the very spit of Jimmy Cagney in his Thirties prime. Dancing down the steps of a stairway straight out of the era’s Hollywood musicals with Fred Astaire tails on his jacket, he is fully in character for "Swings Both Ways", the sequel to his massive 2001 hit Swing When You’re Winning.
This intimate interruption to his stadium tour schedule at the Palladium is for a Christmas BBC TV special, and that hoary tradition is equally honoured. There are guest stars, from the Muppets to Rufus Wainwright, and a sentimental song, “High Hopes”, sung surrounded by winsome kids (one of whose mention of “the mile high club” to warm-up comic Ian Royce may struggle to make the cut).
Williams flirted with Oasis’s rock’n’roll world as he fought his way free from Take That. But the most appealing thing about him is the unashamed showbiz coursing through his blood. This is proven to be literally true when his dad Pete, surprise duettist on Duke Ellington’s “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me”, is comfortable and creditable singing and dancing with his son. Like Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello, Williams Junior is steeped in pre-rock musical lore from his father.
He doesn’t actually have the skills of an all-round entertainer, or a voice for swing. His dancing is approximate, and his singing, even on “Go Gentle”, a song about his beloved baby daughter Theodora, can’t handle poignancy. Vocally Williams is a tribute act to the Sinatras and Martins, not a rival. Then again, Frank may not have been entirely comfortable singing “Swings Both Ways” with Rufus Wainwright at his snake-hipped swishiest. This number, co-written by the pair, ends with them stepping out of giant closets with blinding pink plastic jackets, top hats and canes. We really have come a long way.
A duet on “Dream A Little Dream” with Lily Allen, edging her way out of the least convincing retirement since Jay-Z’s and looking uncertain, is less successful. It takes Miss Piggy, standing-in for Nicole Kidman on 2001 Christmas no. 1 “Somethin’ Stupid”, to match Williams’s stellar quality.
Williams finds a balance between his personality and those he is aping when he interjects his own riffs. “I am the okey-dokey Stokey blokey,” he chirps on Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher”, “a little bit tubby, a little bit hokey.” A more restrained, physically limited performer than Calloway, Williams gains in rock-schooled confessional emotion. He admits, “I’ve always felt a little bit stupid” before “If I Only Had a Brain”, rails at his critics on “Shine My Shoes”, and dons a fat suit for “No One Likes a Fat Pop Star” (“showbiz a single-chin game…”). He also reinvents Radiohead’s “Creep”, replacing its anguish with a swinging celebration of being “a freak” and “a weirdo”. He puffs his cheeks with relief as he finishes. Dream job done.