I don’t like going to The O2 Arena. It’s too far out, and the transport connections are not brilliant. The best way out back to central London afterwards is by boat – yes, boat – the Jubilee line is far too stuffy and crowded, and good luck getting out of there any time soon in a car. Taking a bus takes forever and those black taxis and private hire cabs are too expensive, given the price of a decent ticket to see something at The O2. The last time I saw a Canadian singer in concert was Leonard Cohen, now sadly missed, and who thankfully played dates at the Royal Albert Hall as well as The O2, allowing people like me to not be quite so, in Cohen’s own words, “financially and geographically inconvenienced”. And as I remarked at the time, how we danced to the end of love. I must have some perspective, however: Celine Dion’s Manchester Arena concert was re-scheduled to Leeds First Direct Arena as renovation work goes on until early September at the Manchester Arena
This, then, is how I ended up seeing Celine Dion at London’s O2 Arena. I went to see the journalist and broadcaster Edward Seckerson interview Stephen Ashfield, famous for outstanding supporting roles in Jersey Boys and The Book of Mormon musicals. From that mixture of conversation and song, one of the surprising and most memorable points to note was his ‘guilty pleasure’ (his choice of term) for Celine Dion. If my memory serves me correctly, he saw her live show in Las Vegas, and was very quickly moved to tears (of joy!) by it. Earlier this year I found myself seeing Alice Fearn, who at the time of writing is playing the lead role of Elphaba in the West End production of Wicked (a show which has never appealed to me, having seen it just the once back in 2009, but has enjoyed continued commercial success) in concert. Both she and other cast members of Wicked were raving about Celine: Willemijn Verkaik half-jokingly said she was considering pulling a sickie in order to attend Celine’s London concerts.
Verkaik is, of course, a consummate professional – and performers in long-running theatre productions are entitled to annual leave in any event, so calling in sick would not have been necessary. The salient point, however, is that Celine Dion was coming to London, and she is someone held in great esteem by these musical theatre actors, and many others besides. Having never actually seen her perform live, I thought I’d take the plunge. The cheaper seats having been taken by the time I even found out about her concerts, I ended up going the other way and splashing out on a VIP seat, which in the end didn’t involve anything other than a few bits of merchandise thrown into a goodie bag. I splashed out on a coffee mug, with ‘MY (heart symbol) WILL GO ON’ on one side and a photo of Celine on the other, and a glossy programme (which slightly surprisingly wasn’t included in the goodie bag).
Thank goodness for the Night Tube. Not that I would have been stranded. Thames Clippers run extra ‘river buses’ on ‘O2 event nights’, which were a considerable improvement this time around: when I saw Bon Jovi play at The O2 Arena in 2010, the river bus service was a complete shambles, and a very discourteous member of staff shouted at us waiting passengers, something about not being able to conjure up another boat out of thin air. We did get to Waterloo Pier until after 1am. In 2017, all was pleasant (apart from a pair of ladies who saw it fit to shove me out of the way, without apology or acknowledgement, to get on the boat before me) – a senior member of staff was even contemplating, out loud, commanding another boat into action dependent on customer demand (these days, you can just use the Oyster pay-as-you-go system rather than having to pre-book). According to my Oyster account I boarded the boat at North Greenwich Pier at 23:21, disembarked at Embankment Pier at 00:05, and was on the London Underground at 00:08, arriving at my local station at 00:35. Given Celine went on (and on) until 23:03, that really wasn’t too bad.
I am grateful for the extra food and drink outlets available at The O2 now ‘after security’. This does, I appreciate, make an entertainment centre sound like an airport. Indeed, The O2’s security measures are stricter than Heathrow Airport’s, insofar as the latter will allow up to 100ml of liquid through. The O2 allows none. Not a drop. The ‘after security’ pizza and chips that I bought from one of the many places went down a treat, and I was served reasonably quickly given the considerable number of people queuing up. There were sufficient places to stand and eat, too, and if you needed to sit down sooner rather than later, the auditorium doors were open a full 90 minutes before the support act came on (and 135 minutes before Celine took to the stage).
Véronic DiCaire, 40, from Embrun, Ontario, is worth mentioning. Hers, I think, is the best support act I have seen to date (though I should qualify that and add that as a theatre critic, I don’t get out to many gigs – plays and musicals being my standard ‘going out’ fare). Okay, it was all backing tracks but the lighting was done well. Véronic is, in her own words, an impressionist of female singers, such that Celine even hinted that if she (Celine) were indisposed for whatever reason, Véronic could return to the stage and perform impressions of Celine.
Véronic actually could, if the worst came to the worst. For this opening act, the audience was treated to a large number of chart music songs made famous by a wide selection of artists, including Pink, Tina Turner and Susan Boyle. A brief rendering of Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ brought the house down on this London crowd. People around me whose knowledge of chart music was and is far superior to my own were repeatedly impressed at the accuracy of Véronic’s impressions, and her curtain closer, The Whitney Houston version of ‘I Will Always Love You’ was a fitting end to a whistle-stop tour of the sort of music I would only usually encounter in a minicab or if someone is playing their music obtrusively loudly on the Tube.
The main act followed a tried and tested formula of many a popular singer doing a concert in front of an arena-sized audience. There were minutes and minutes of build-up between the lights going down and Celine Dion actually appearing on-stage and singing, more than ample opportunity for a die-hard Celine fan to stand up prematurely, for people behind her to complain, and for her to sit back down again. I’m quite sure there would have been time to nip out to the arena conveniences and buy a beer. The show proper was two magical hours, without an interval, though there were two separate musical interludes, in which the musicians – always ‘the musicians’, never ‘the band’ (and there weren’t quite enough of them to constitute an orchestra) – under the direction of Scott Price, took over and provided some rather beautiful compositions to be enjoyed.
To not have closed out with ‘My Heart Will Go On’ would be a little bit like Bon Jovi not closing their concert with ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’. (In the end, there was yet another number from Celine, ‘Love of My Life’, made famous by Queen.) But if the assumption was that this would be two hours of power ballad after power ballad, such was the variety of music performed that people who wanted Mellow Magic FM on stage may well have been disappointed. The rest of us were enthralled by this dazzling display and mixture of the upbeat and the reflective, the slow and the speedy, the all-too-familiar and the novel.
Celine has an excellent rapport with the audience, always maintaining a pleasant persona, even when certain members in the crowd who just couldn’t help but call out anything that came to mind at the top of their lungs, from the sublime to the ridiculous, in some desperate attempt to get Celine’s attention. The sublime was responded to (“I love you too, baby”) and at one point, after a stunning delivery of Jim Steinman’s ‘It’s All Coming Back To Me Now’, at least twenty-five thank-yous (no exaggeration), in response to an extended round of cheering and applause. The ridiculous was roundly ignored.
I was aware that Celine had lost her husband and one of her brothers within days of one another in 2016 to cancer. This is the sort of tour that clearly puts her back on the map, and she is unafraid of being candid about what happened then, and much more besides. By her own admission, she loves to talk, which is partly why I began with by mentioning Leonard Cohen, because her own observations about life and its imponderables, while not quite reaching the philosophical depths of Cohen’s anecdotes and lyrics, threatened to frustrate those in the crowd who would have preferred more singing. As someone who within the last week held back from a five-star review of an otherwise flawless concert elsewhere for lack of personal stories for the audience to connect to, Celine Dion going on (and on – I know I’ve already done that punchline, but I can’t help it) about anything from shopping whenever she is in London to her fans and followers blessing her not so much with a hit but with a career, was heavenly.
In some respects, there is nothing new under the sun here. Familiarity sometimes really does breed contempt. But in the familiarity of some of these songs (part-way through ‘Think Twice’, Celine points her microphone at the audience, the vast majority of whom, on cue, sing/shout, “No, no, no, no!”) come feelings of ecstasy and euphoria. Celine is closer to 50 than 40, but this doesn’t stop her from being as bendy and flexible as ever during Le Ballet, a male dancer, apparently called Ben (think Jamie Dornan of ‘Fifty Shades’ fame) has the superstar in compromising positions more than once. Ardent feminists would have been horrified. But, as Celine almost happily admitted, neither she nor anyone else can always please everyone.
Celine’s is a truly unique performance. With each and every song, there’s a strong emotional attachment – one got a palpable feeling that, for instance, things really were getting serious. The passing of her husband René Angélil made the line ‘Don’t want to be / All by myself / Anymore’ all the more meaningful for both Celine and her fanbase than ever before. To top it all off, she leaves the stage, and with just a handful of her team taking on security roles, strides all the way through the centre aisle of The O2 Arena to a small platform next to the sound desk, to make her farewells. The French language has two words for ‘goodbye’, one roughly meaning ‘bye for now’ and the other approximating to ‘goodbye forever’. For this French-Canadian singer, it was definitely au revoir rather than adieu. She’s still got it, oh yes.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.