POP MUSIC / Silent majority: From a whisper to a scream: Jim White is shocked and subdued by Tori Amos at Her Majesty's

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Her Majesty's Theatre, home of Andrew Lloyd Webber's pension (otherwise known as The Phantom of the Opera) was gripped by a reverential silence. Even the public address system had the volume dial turned down to one, which made the old Led Zeppelin tracks played as the audience tip-toed to their seats sound mellifluous. Well, almost. And when Tori Amos did turn up, oddly to the rollin', rollin' chorus of Rawhide, the man at the front of the circle whose whoop of excitement cracked the atmosphere sank into his seat with embarrassment.

All this quiet was because Amos likes your full attention. Distractions such as other musicians, fancy stage clothes, cheery banter or extraneous noise might draw attention away from the point of it all: Tori Amos. On to a stage occupied only by a couple of pianos, she arrived wearing cut- off jeans several sizes too large in the waist, a complex arrangement of vests and a pair of heavy shoes which she removed with a flourish half-way through the performance. With a childlike wave she parked herself on a stool in the centre of a thin triangle of purple light, which, it transpired, was an apt metaphor for the range of her vision.

Tori Amos's world has a limited population. Her debut album Little Earthquakes, which registered high on the Richter scale of album sales, was entirely about her tortured-at-every- turn life: songs worrying about her upbringing, her parents, lovers, religion, even the piano teacher (who, judging by the facility with which this former pupil plays, deserves congratulation rather than pillory). But her songs about suburban problems of love and growing up were given some charm by the surreal spin with which she presented them ('What if I'm a mermaid in these jeans of yours with her name on it').

The new Amos offering, Under The Pink, which she performed at considerable length here, is equally auto- biographical, no less self-revelatory and, its critics have suggested, virtually indistinguishable from the first. Its every turn is littered with choruses that might have been plucked from Little Earthquakes: 'I'm looking for a saviour beneath these dirty sheets / I crucify myself every day.'

You can see by the way she performs, however, there is no artifice about it. This woman really is troubled; a jolly song from her is about as likely as profundity from East 17. Take the way she addresses her instrument. Jerry Lee Lewis might stand on his, Little Richard might do Nadia Comaneci impressions atop his, but never in the history of piano stools has one taken such a pounding as Tori Amos's. Initially, she sits astride it, as you might a horse, one knee facing her audience. But within seconds she is squirming as if the cushioning is home to a squadron of soldier ants, eroding the fabric as she rubs, rocks and strains over it.

Strangely, given the violence of her movements below the waist, Amos runs her fingers across the piano keys with exemplary calm. Her singing, too, is at times so quiet that in the balcony you were straining forward in the seat to hear. Then, suddenly, you found yourself blown backwards as she broke from girly whisper into a crazed operatic warbling, the sort of noise that Kate Bush might emit if you stamped on her foot.

And it was not simply the tone, but the content - 'I want to kill the waitress,' she whispers, before booming 'But I believe in peace, bitch' - that had most of the audience making mental notes that should Ms Amos ever call for tea, the knife draw would be put under lock and key and the rabbit remain secure in its hutch.

The problem with the performance was not that the songs weren't good or that she didn't undertake them well. It was that this formula of whisper, wail, shake the mad halo of hair, wail, whisper became, after an hour and a half, as oppressive as spending 90 minutes in the company of Arsenal.

Only three times did she alter the mixture: by no coincidence, the three highlights of the evening. Once when she employed a taped drum backing for the wonderful 'Cornflake Girl' to inject some rhythm and drive into the proceedings; once when she played a specially de-tuned upright piano, which made a delightful tone, like a herd of Swiss cattle coming home from the fields; and once when, sitting cross-legged on her abused stool, she sang, without accompaniment, 'Me and A Gun', a song about rape and revenge. Watching her there, tiny, vulnerable and barking, you got the same tense feeling in the stomach as when watching Keith Richards in concert: you really wondered if she was going to make it to the end.

She did, to undertake three encores - which seemed optimistic, since the earthquake of applause was not large. But then, in the Amos orbit, silence probably denotes consent.

(Photograph omitted)

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