The size of a couple of Zeppelin hangers, the Manchester Evening News Arena had been adapted to accommodate the elaborate stage set which enabled the Spice Girls to perform in the round. From a grotto of blizzard-whitened fir trees, a long snowy catwalk led to a central, circular dais, above which was suspended an enormous, glowing icicle. Above the icicle, a cube of video screens relayed the on-stage action.
Before the Spice Girls themselves appeared, we got to watch an extract of The Snowman on the video-cube, only to discover after about three minutes that this was in fact an advert for the video of The Snowman - "yours to own for just ...". This was followed by what seemed to be an advert for a children's TV channel, with each on-screen wink or pout from Robbie, Boyzone or Leonardo DiCaprio being greeted by a renewed wave of screams from the massed ranks of girl power.
But it was this very suggestion of a rally which made the entire spectacle so enthralling and infectiously upbeat. What we had was Spice on Ice. Bathed in purple and green light, with a cats-cradle of lasers pulsating through the clouds of dry ice, the snow-caked catwalk must have seemed like a staircase-to-paradise, part Disney, part MTV. After a build-up of thumping house-style music, the Spice Girls rose up at one end to a deafening wall of high-pitched screams. Frozen in defiant, heroic attitudes, pointing, flexing and punching the air, Posh, Scary, Sporty and Baby looked like a cross between the cartoon superheroes in a Japanese comic, and some kind of socialist realist monument to supremacy in tractor production.
The Spice Girls perform with consummate professionalism, never missing a beat, a note or a line of banter. Sandwiching tracks from their forthcoming LP between crowd-pleasing favourites, they delivered their slick combination of sugary pop and orchestrated funk in precisely the way that it sounds on MTV. We had a toddler on stage with Baby, and a boy who can only be described as "some bloke from the audience" on stage with Scary. "Wannabe" and "2 Become One" did the business with the kids, and three costume changes later - from neo-Pocahontas to the Snow Queen - it was an Xmas medley of old stomp-a-longs by Wizzard and Slade. Something for the mums and dads, at any rate. Our hopes that Sporty, having performed "Anarchy in the UK" last summer at Glastonbury, might do Iggy Pop's "I Wanna Be Your Dog" were dashed.
Running adverts before the concert turned out to make a lot of sense. The Spice Girls, above all, are a triumph of commodity culture. Their live appearance seemed to share, to adult eyes at least, not only the sense of scale, but also the sensibility, of contemporary High Street retail. In many ways, one felt as though "Winter In Spice World" was rather like Christmas shopping with the kids in the Bluewater or Trafford Centre: a brilliantly conceived replication of a seasonal experience, aimed at the requirements of the broadest market.
The Spice Girls: Earls Court, London, tonight, Tue, Wed (0171 373 8141)
NICHOLAS BARBER ON BLUR, PAGE 8