Ariana Grande review – crowd-pleasing anthems of female resilience

Alexis Petridis
Photograph: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for AG

Ariana Grande first appears at the centre of a tableau of dancers based on Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper – albeit a last supper at which the diners suddenly start climbing on the table, waving their thong-clad bums in the air and pretending to cop off with each other. It’s both a striking opening and an anomaly, a rare moment of visual spectacle in a show that feels remarkably understated and restrained. Of course, such things are relative: it’s as subtle as any gig that involves a neon-pink limousine rising up through the stage while fake bank notes rain down on fans who’ve shelled out real cash – the best part of £250 – to stand in the front rows can be. But, by arena-sized pop standards, the Sweetener tour is pretty much the last word in discretion. No relentless son-et-lumière bombardment, no eye-popping special effects, just a couple of giant globes on to which tasteful footage of the sun and night sky is projected. Even the stage-side screens are of a reasonable size.

Attention is focused on Grande herself, which is quite a gamble. As pop stars go, she’s not a particularly charismatic figure. It’s something she’s been smart enough to paper over with a series of easily identifiable and copyable looks, an old trick that has been largely forgotten in pop’s latterday stampede towards girl/boy-next-door “relatability”. Tonight, though the rabbit ears that were once her trademark are long gone, the high ponytail is more immense than ever and her fans scream every time she flicks it with her fingers.

Anyone not fully obsessed with Grande’s tonsorial arrangements might find that there are moments where the show lags, at least at first: the vast majority of her party anthem hits are shunted towards the end of the set, while the opening concentrates on tracks from 2018’s Sweetener and this year’s Thank U, Next. There’s nothing wrong with this material, but the soupy acoustics of a venue this size don’t do a great deal for the subtleties of REM or Needy. Nevertheless, Grande can really sing. The show opens with her performing The Four Seasons’ doo-woop-y 1961 hit An Angel Cried a capella. She posseses a falsetto that she can turn up to full Minnie-Ripperton-doing-Lovin’-You levels, a sound that’s simultaneously hugely impressive and nerve-jangling enough to make you grateful she deploys it quite sparingly. It says something about arena-sized pop shows that the sound of someone singing live feels striking.

Meanwhile, anyone hoping to hear her open her heart up goes home unhappy. Stage chat is at a minimum and fixed firmly to the standard inquiries about whether everyone is having a good time. The only thing you could take as a reference to events of the last two years, the terrorist attack on her Manchester Arena show and the death of former boyfriend Mac Miller among them, is the unexplained appearance of a clip from the 1996 film The First Wives Club: a movie that, beneath the gags, is ultimately about female resilience.

If that’s the show’s message, then fans seem to have got it. For all the high-pitched hysteria afforded the hits – Thank U, Next; Dangerous Woman; Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored – the most vociferous response is generated by Breathin’, a song about overcoming panic attacks and anxiety. It’s proof that in a world of pop songs filled with self-help mantras, Grande’s have clearly hit home. That’s what people are here for.