POP / Anything for Barbra: The carpet, the ticket prices, the security checks, the set, the autocue. And, somewhere in among it all, Barbra Streisand

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The Independent Culture
For Barbra, anything is possible. Who would have thought Wembley Arena, the home of stadium rock, could do such a passable impression of the London Palladium? Black drapes obscured the venue's sad red hoardings, a cushion converted your plastic bucket-seat into . . . well, a bucket with a cushion in it, but it was a giant advance. And underfoot lay a deep blue carpet, which wasn't there when Metallica last thundered into town.

In the corridors, the burger huts and drinks closets had been made over to become wine bars and seafood shacks. The floor, traditionally slick with spilt lager, was buffed to a high sheen. For a lot of the audience this would have been their first experience of what is not ordinarily the most heartening and wholesome of venues. But this was a place magically transformed - a place for Barbra. Accordingly, there are now several thousand people walking around with the same misguided view of Wembley Arena that the Queen has of railway stations.

Ahead of Barbra Streisand's first British appearance for 28 years, attention has focused, not on what she might sing or how her voice might sound, but on the price of admission and the chance of being body-searched on the way in. Those six-figure tickets raised the cachet of these shows to unprecedented heights, but at the cost of excluding a broad swathe of her fans. There were clusters of Barbra diehards on the crowded tube trains, noisily chorusing Streisand's greatest hits all the way from Baker Street to Wembley Park. But they struggled to make their presence felt inside the Arena. The lesson is, ask quality prices and you get a quality audience - that is, one heavily stocked with the best part of the British music industry, television celebrities on freebies and every shiny-suited wide- boy in London.

And if you hadn't emptied your pockets to buy a ticket, you were forced to empty them on the way in. Officials roamed the queues, handing out clear plastic bags for keys and loose change and other metallic objects which might trigger the sensors you were about to pass through. Those who set off the bleepers had their coats combed with a battery-operated wand. The ticket had warned about these 'stringent search procedures' and, sure enough, it was the first time a security man at Wembley Arena has ever checked inside my glasses case.

Still, anything for Barbra. On reflection, it was a bit of a bore joining the inevitably slow queues winding their way to where the turnstiles had been removed - this despite the distraction of summery, yellow-and-white striped awnings, fluffed out along the Arena's concrete walls. But at the time it only aroused your sense of the exclusivity of it all. There's nothing like a walk-through metal detector for convincing you that you are somewhere impressively official. The highest prices, the tightest security . . . the air outside practically crackled.

Inside, the stage set was on various levels, linked by elegant flights of stairs, featuring large windows and dotted with seats and sofas, a white tea cup on a table, a flower arrangement the size of a bus. In short, it was a giant, Californian living-room, albeit a living-room with nothing especially homely in it - in other words, a hotel lobby. Four busts were mounted on the wall. Mozart? Beethoven? Lloyd Webber? Maybe John, Paul, George and Ringo . . ? From part-way down the hall it was hard to be sure, and we were never introduced. Throughout the show, the walls would pass up into the ceiling to reveal a pin-sharp video screen. And after the overture, which had earned its own outbreaks of applause by teasing you with snippets of the glories to come, out she came, gliding gently on to the balcony with a smile and a light wave.

The first thing Streisand said was: 'I don't know why I'm frightened.' And if this really was the case, then was it wise, before she had even sung a note, to bring the house lights up, so she could see the thousands on their feet in front of her and sense the full weight of their anticipation? On 'As If We Never Said Goodbye', she got off to a stuttered start, mis- pitching, breaking off at once and then approaching the note again, this time on the button.

The sound, like the carpet, was an Arena first - warm, rounded, full and definitely not bouncing back at you off the walls. Through Barbra's windows out the back, and lowered into a dip, sat the orchestra - a large one, in as much as it was visible. When Streisand asked us to applaud Marvin Hamlisch for his fabulous musical direction, his face had to be beamed up on to the video screen so we could get a look at him. An odd arrangement, this, for a working singer and it accounted for the feeling just occasionally that the voice was laying on top of the arrangement, rather than emerging from inside it. The producer Phil Ramone tells a story about making the Duets album with Frank Sinatra - how Ramone had erected perspex screens around the microphone to get a better recorded sound, but Sinatra made him take them down again because, in order to deliver, he needed to stand where he could feel the kick of the band hit him in the chest. There was no scope here for Streisand to exploit that possibility. In the language of the set, she stood in the same social relation to the musicians that the lady of the house has with the gardener, and if they want to come in, they'll have to use the tradesman's entrance.

With Streisand, you don't pay for the dancing. Occasionally there is an exaggerated walk, making heavy use of the shoulders, but chiefly she is static, only raising a finger to stroke, rather preciously, a strand of hair from her eyes. She is a singer and a film actress but it is by no means fair to assume that you can knock those two skills together and come out as an all-round performer, a Liza Minelli. So to give the show shape, it was structured around her life-story - some of it done, self-mockingly, in dialogue with the off-stage voice of a therapist, much of it illustrated with film clips on the video screen. Up in the ceiling, three large teleprompters scrolled through lyrics, patter and all - the entire show on autocue. When she sang 'You Don't Bring Me Flowers', the voice rising clear and hard against the downfall of the strings, it was impossible to believe that she didn't have the words off by heart and was summoning them from there. It was drying on stage that forced Streisand into her semi-exile as a performer - perhaps the teleprompters were just a safety mechanism. Bold and honest of her to leave these devices so clearly visible, but part of you wished she had been more devious and concealed them somewhere. There was something disenchanting about seeing the workings exposed so brazenly.

The show favoured the slow and sentimental Streisand over the cooky, quick-talking Streisand (no room for 'Secondhand Rose' here) and offered just two major outbreaks of sassiness near the start in 'I'm Still Here' ('The nose is Cyrano's,' she sang) and 'Don't Rain on My Parade'. She sang 'Evergreen' and 'He Touched Me' and 'My Man' in a voice which lifted effortlessly into its top ranges and shrank to a whispered quietness, daring in a venue this size.

Inevitably, from time to time you needed a strong stomach for kitsch. Following some discussion of her five-year-old god-daughter, she gave us 'When You Wish Upon a Star'. Sometimes, as she spoke and the orchestra gathered strength underneath her, you felt, rather too strongly, a song coming on. 'Do we need a catastrophe to remind us that we're all . . . People, people who need people.' Cue tumultuous applause. During an immaculately spreading version of Sondheim's 'Not While I'm Around', the video screen shuffled through some photographs of Streisand's son, growing from a gurgling blob with a familiar pair of eyes into a giant hunk in an American football outfit (or maybe those were his shoulders). At the close of this, Streisand turned to the screen and gave one of those little waves you offer babies. Still, this was her home, these were her pictures.

'Take care of yourselves,' she said (or read). 'I'm so glad our paths have crossed.' It was, in the end, an oddly cool meeting. But then, the show was only a part of it.

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