First Night: Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour, O2 Arena, London

At last, Jackson appears at the O2 (but this off the wall tribute is no thriller)
  • @arifa_akbar

It started off small. Five early-era Michael Jackson lookalikes in psychedelic shirts and Afros, sneaking their way through Neverland ranch's front-gates. Once entry was achieved, a digital screen at the back of the O2 Arena blinked awake and unfurled to its full size, bringing with it the promise that this show was about to get very, very big. After all, the biggest brand in circus theatrics has got together with the estate of the late King of Pop to spawn the mother of all mash-ups.

Except that it never exploded into the magnificent monster of spectacle that it might have been. Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian mega-circus, is no stranger to hybrid shows at its Las Vegas residency. Love, in which the circus treatment was given to The Beatles' story, was widely praised, as was Viva Elvis.

The venue was to blame, at least in part. Its gargantuan size might have suited a live concert – Jackson had planned to play the O2 as part of his unrealised This Is It tour – but to stage this blend of dance, theatre and acrobatics in the arena was the equivalent of throwing a bucket of cold water over any fireworks it was hoping to set off. Performers who might have worked wonders on the rotunda stage of the Royal Albert Hall – Cirque's usual home – looked like small, insubstantial figures. Even the immense screen could not dominate the space.

The first part remained sluggish. There was no coherent storyline beyond entry to Neverland, and several songs were partly played or spliced into one another. A tableau celebrating Jackson's love of animals saw two ornate elephant puppets plod on stage and plod off again. A human chimp, playing Jackson's pet, Bubbles, looked as if he had lost his way from the set of Cirque's last show, Totem.

Most disappointingly, the acrobatic thrills were few and far between: a female aerialist performed boldly in a red bikini to "Dangerous", a couple doing a sexy tango posed in adjoined splits in the air. But much of the repertoire seemed rehashed from previous shows. Even if a tribute musical show was always destined to be more theatrical than acrobatic, too few numbers at the start were big enough productions. Dancers resembled a chorus line of moon-walkers and single-glove-wearing spinners, palely imitating their star frontman in his absence.

The first hour ended with "Thriller", which was impressive but no showstopper. The costumes were magnificent – the bats' wings a diaphanous gold-green, the ghouls clad in transparent white with bloody innards revealed beneath, and a green contortionist crawling across a book like a creature from a nightmare. Choreographically though, it was unadventurous when compared with the maniacal creativity of Jackson's original video.

The saving grace was the show's use of stage lighting. Acrobats wearing LED lights glimmered like stars. A chaos of strobe lights swung around the arena to assail the audience. Dancers became silhouettes of changing colours and acrobats dangled in darkness with lights studded across their coiled bodies. A ghostly hologram of Jackson, his arms in crucifix, was a marvel of lighting technology.

The show finally seemed to decide what it was going to be: an extravagant jukebox musical. Circus artistry was all but forgotten as flag-bearers inexplicably joined the dancers on stage for a medley of songs, and a crescendo of fireworks and messages of universal hope were delivered across the screen. Not quite immortal, but at least it went out with a bang.