Robbie Williams, Abbey Road Studios

Clown prince of pop turns in another act as he gets up close and personal
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The Independent Culture

You could be forgiven for thinking that after playing to 375,000 people at Knebworth Park in August - and in the process breaking UK gig records - Robbie Williams wouldn't be satisfied with anything less than an arena-sized concert. But last night the singer performed for just 300 people at Abbey Road Studios in London.

To most fans at Knebworth, Williams was a miniscule figure in the distance. Last night the audience of mostly Radio 2 contest winners had no need for vast video screens. This was Robbie up close and personal.

Has any other pop career of recent times been more cannily managed? Well, yes, you could argue - Madonna's. Indeed, his restless image manipulation most resembles the makeovers of Mrs Guy Ritchie. It is that or a very public and ongoing case of a loss of self. Since leaving Take That in 1995 at the height of Brit Pop, Robbie has reinvented himself more times than Mr Ben. Firstly, he wanted to be Oasis, hanging out with the Gallagher brothers for much of 1995. Their influence was evident in his second single "Old Before I Die". Then in 1997, his first solo album and a big hit, Life Thru A Lens, included the single "Let Me Entertain You", a Kiss pastiche for which Williams donned a raunchy black PVC cat-suit and full face make-up. For the video for 2000's "Rock DJ", Robbie went to extremes of self-extinction. Starting out naked in the video, he then tore off his flesh and gave it to his audience. It was only a year later that Robbie turned into a tuxedo-wearing Frank Sinatra for his album of standards Swing When You're Winning. His appearance at the Royal Albert Hall widened his appeal, even to grannies.

Now labouring under a huge new EMI contract, with America seemingly indifferent to his charms and without his long-term songwriting partner, Williams must reinvent himself once more. Can he do it?

On tonight's evidence, yes he can. In what looks like a half-empty church hall with a red curtain and a small band silhouetted at the back Robbie walks down some stairs in sunglasses, holding a drink, looking like the Fonz. He goes straight into jokes about how weird and intimate this all is. But luckily Robbie still has charisma in bucket loads. It picks up with hits like "Come Undone" from his fifth and last album Escapology and "Lazy Days" from his first solo album, Life Thru A Lens which he says makes him feel really old as an artist and while he's reminiscing he throws in "No Regrets", a song about Take That, and "Better Man", a song he says which came to him, believe it or not, as he prayed to John Lennon. But by the time he swings into "Mr Bojangles" he's smoking a cigarette and whistling on stage before it all ends in "Angels".

But despite all his earnestness and intimations of mortality now he's coming up to 30 years old, one can't help but wonder if this is not just another performance from the clown prince of pop.