POP / Reviews: Kiss me, Shirley: She has lost some trademark tics but not the gold lame sling-backs. Jim White on Shirley Bassey

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The Independent Online
The Festival Hall foyer was swamped with the oddest mix of an audience it can have seen since the last time Shirley Bassey was there. Coach-parties of middle-aged ladies up from the suburbs mingled with sharp metropolitan gay couples; sometimes they had turned out together, boys and their mums. The air was choked with hair-spray and aftershave, the combined effort to dress up for Shirl, 2,000 individual attempts to match her glamour.

They failed, obviously. Glamour, of an elevated sort which is at once both compelling and ridiculous, is the Bassey trademark. Everything is subordinated to the pursuit of it. She does not, for instance, travel light. Several trunks would have been required just to transport the chandeliers she hooks into her ear- lobes every night. And as for a band, not for Shirley a couple of synthesisers to fill in for the strings or the brass. She had assembled a whole orchestra for this, her return to Britain: there were 32 musicians up on the stage. Thirty-two musicians, but only one star.

She arrived from the back of the stage. Her dress, a gold and cream floor-length confection with tassels shimmering along every well-preserved contour, drew a standing ovation. 'Ooh, clock the frock,' was the consensus from the stalls. She claimed, too, that underneath the spangly acreage she was wearing her bedroom slippers. She damaged her toe performing the previous evening, apparently and, swollen, it simply wouldn't fit in her tight little stage pumps. Only Shirley would wear gold lame sling-backs with 4in heels as bedroom slippers. Well, Shirley and most of her audience.

This was advertised as the 40th anniversary tour, which means Bassey has been a British institution even longer than Cliff Richard. It may have taken nearly half a century, but on this evidence she has finally matured, thrown off the silly stuff which made her grist to the impressionists' mill for a generation. Following the death of her daughter a few years ago, the singer lost her voice completely. She has been coached back into full, dramatic, vocal range, and along the way she has lost many of the tics and facial pulls that made her a figure of fun.

Thus during the singing of 'Big Spender' she no longer looked as though she was suffering from a life-threatening condition of the appendix; during 'I, I Who Have Nothing', her lips did not quiver like cornered rabbits; and for most of the evening she managed to stop her hands from guiding the local air traffic in to land on the stage. They remained expressive hands, though. Great long fingers marking dramatic parabolas as she squeezed emotion from some tired old ballad, knitting in a pastiche of schoolgirl nerves when she addressed the audience, or flicking long, passionate kisses out to the stalls, where they landed on crop-haired chaps grown weak-kneed by the attention.

And they worked hard, those hands. Not for Bassey the excuse for a breather disguised as a Diana Ross-style costume change. The frock remained the same throughout. Frankly there was no time to change as she belted through her songs, rarely pausing even to give a name- check to their author. Frank Sinatra does that, running through a number's genealogy, generously acknowledging every contribution from every writer; Shirley reckons the best testament to a song is to just whack it out.

Which is probably just as well. She is no great judge of a repertoire. There were numbers she reprised ('New York New York', 'I Wanna Know What Love Is', half the output of Andrew Lloyd Webber) which would have been laughed off stage at a pub karaoke night. And they were strung together in a creakingly one-paced manner: ballad shall follow upon ballad seems to be the guiding principle of Michael Alexander, her musical director.

Yet it all worked, if only because Shirl put her all into everything, yelping the high notes in her voluminous tenor, barking out the sustains, standing three feet back from her microphone lest she brought the boxes tumbling into the stalls. And she ratcheted the camp metre up to Kenneth Williams levels. During 'Big Spender', the Bassey chassis sashayed along the lip of the stage, timpani sound-tracking her hip roll, the tassels on her dress a-rippling with suggestive tease. During 'Kiss Me Honey', she invited thrilled chaps up from the front row and planted a smacker on their foreheads.

'Darling, you've got lipstick on your face,' she stage-whispered to one fellow, his day, his week, his month made.

In the stalls the adulation was in full swing from the start. By the encore, when Shirl re- emerged in a gold-glitter cape fringed with pink ermine, dozens were pressed to the stage, hoping for a kiss, a wave, or a red carnation.

As the audience stamped, Bassey performed a royal walkabout along the edge of the stage, shaking the hands of the middle-aged and the over-excited who had gathered there. Then, when she started singing her final number - modestly titled 'That Was the Greatest Performance of My Life' - the scrum at the front politely crouched down so those behind could get a decent view. Thoughtfulness you don't encounter at an Oasis gig.

(Photograph omitted)