POP / Barbra's still here - just

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The Independent Culture
SHE WAS special and we were special. It was one of those evenings where we were all special: Barbra Streisand was sharing something personal with 12,000 people at Wembley Arena. It was her first live appearance in Britain since Funny Girl in 1966. Twenty-eight years on, there was more California than Brooklyn; Phoney Girl, perhaps, but no one seemed to mind.

Frostie, Brucie, Terry: all were here. There hadn't been a gathering like this since the relaunch of Sunset Boulevard the night before. If Streisand could have had pounds 1 for every slim blonde in a black trouser-suit she wouldn't have had to charge pounds 12 for the programme.

The second pleasure was the set. Ignore the swags of curtains, the chaise-longue and the busts (yes, one of them was of Shakespeare): the best bit of neo-classical kitsch was the embroidered cushion and elegantly curved legs of the bar stool. If the set was Streisand's idea of home, you couldn't wait to see her idea of a wedding cake.

Streisand entered along the balustrade with 'As If We Never said Goodbye' (from Sunset Boulevard). There was a frisson on the first line ('I don't know why I'm frightened'). The main note she was going to strike was a self-referential one.

Next came 'I'm Still Here' (a bit rich, since she's hardly ever here). The lyrics had been rewritten, with Streisand giving Sondheim a new blandness, right down to a kooky little sideways kick of the heel, as if to say, just kidding folks.

Tonight there was going to be no need to resort to supporting acts or surprise guests. Streisand was delivering an impressive run of 28 songs (only bits of some, admittedly) linked with snatches of reminiscence, film clips and homilies about saving the world through love.

Sketches led into songs. They involved pre-recorded questions from, for instance, a psychiatrist with a thick Viennese accent (clever touch that, the accent). The joke in these sections was on the audience. They were paying her to talk about herself. There was no doubt that Streisand cared deeply about people. It wasn't so easy to gauge (in what turned out, at 90 minutes, to be a surprisingly short performance) how much she cared about this thing called audience.

Her arching voice reached out to the back of Wembley Arena - soaring, powerful, precisely pitched. She'd latch on to some unsuspecting syllable and take it not just through different registers but through different voices. There's the dry pained one from the back of the throat, the high nasal one (we know where that comes from), and the low, scoopy one that drives all before it like a snow plough. When she sang 'Speak Low', Kurt Weill's song from One Touch of Venus, she stretched the 'ea' and the 'o' in so many directions you forgot that someone was asking you to keep your voice down. Her eyes looked as glazed as the emotions. She was staring into the middle distance . . . oh, she was reading the autocue.

The film clips kept distancing us too. She did the duet 'I'll Know', singing along with a clip of Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls. When she sang 'The Way We Were', she showed a love scene with Robert Redford from The Way We Were. When her fingers touched his face some of the audience were trembling with wish fulfilment.

Streisand showed us snaps from the family album: photos of her goddaughter, photos of her son, but none, sadly, of Andre Agassi. The last time Streisand made public appearances in Britain it was to watch tennis at Wimbledon in Centre Court seats that would have retailed for about much as tickets to her show did.

In many ways, people got their money's worth. The show was never less than supremely professional: the film editing, lighting and, above all, conductor Marvin Hamlisch's impressively rich orchestra, flowing round Streisand like thousands of attendant lords. But the higher the production values the further away she seemed.

The second half was far more enjoyable. She slowed up, sang fewer songs, and opened out on 'Ordinary Miracles', then 'Evergreen' and 'Happy Days'. Then, very early, she went. How corny, you thought. This is the falsest exit there's ever been. How many encores can she do with a straight face? But she only did a couple more songs, then that was it.

The audience adored her. But it seemed as if Streisand was too wary to take any risks. The evening never developed a life of its own. The film clips, scripted chat, the general razzmatazz of the event kept her in a weird protected zone. Out of harm's reach. Next time, I'd like to see her live.

Streisand sings at Wembley again on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. All dates are sold out.

(Photograph omitted)