Review

Fantastic, exciting, absurd: Florence + the Machine are back

4/5

No other pop star writes, sings or dances quite like Florence Welch – as she reminded an enraptured crowd at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane

Energetic: Florence Welch Credit: Gus Stewart/Redferns

Florence Welch seemed giddily excited to be back on stage, leaping and skipping about to her epic gothic pop, looking like a Pre-Raphaelite poster girl, and sounding like a cross between a weaponised Joni Mitchell and a keening Banshee.

The summer of 2019 was the last time Florence + the Machine played her hometown, for a crowd of 60,000 in Hyde Park. The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane proved an intimate yet ideal setting for this most dramatic of singer-songwriters to stage a comeback, a woman whose visual style fetishes the most romantic aspects of the Victorian era.

There were antique stage costumes and lustrous oil paintings in the foyer that looked like designs for her set, as if the audience were entering a fully immersive Florence experience. As the five-piece band revved up the noise, the 35-year-old struck a pose that wouldn’t have looked out of place on one of the theatre’s many classically themed statues, artfully backlit in a diaphanous white gown and cape, looking like the ghost of Ophelia rising for revenge. But she didn’t remain still for long.

“It’s the dancing I’ve missed the most,” she admitted during a brief respite from racing barefoot from side to side of the stage, spinning in dizzy circles, and bunny-hopping up and down on the spot with a huge grin splitting her face, all the while unleashing tremulous vocals above the Machine’s wall of sound. You can’t imagine the Strictly judges being overly impressed with her moves, but the audience was soon on their feet, jumping along with such enthusiasm you could feel the Royal Circle shake.

Since her first emergence in 2007 as a very singular musical character, there has been some opaqueness about whether Welch is a solo artist or frontwoman for a band. Essentially, she records solo, and performs as a band. Some members, including guitarist Robert Ackroyd and harpist Tom Monger, have been with her since the beginning, and, while several other long-serving players were not present on Tuesday evening, this turned out to be Covid-related.

Florence + the Machine performed in London for the first time since 2019 Credit: Gus Stewart/Redferns

Speaking of her relief to be back performing (a regular theme of the night), she said: “We still have some Machine and crew in isolation. At one point, this was going to be just Florence!” Nevertheless, by some stage magic, the absent violins and backing vocals still sounded through the thick arrangements, with Welch frequently conducting an invisible choir as if her missing backing vocalists were floating in the aether.

She has a new album, Dance Fever, coming in May, and unveiled several songs, including a stirring piece entitled Girls Against God, which she described as about experiencing “a kind of spiritual breakdown, which – as you can tell from my songs – is something I’m good at.” This one was occasioned by lockdown. “These gigs have been my churches, my sense of where I saw God in the world, and they were all gone and I didn’t know if they would come back, so I had a kind of Old Testament fury. Basically, it’s a song of impotent rage about someone who wants to wage war on heaven but they are stuck in their bedroom in their pyjamas.” Well, it makes a change from girl meets boy.

Welch’s music has a high emotional intensity and baroque intricacy that offsets any sense of campness in its presentation: this is songcraft of high order, invested with intense feeling. There were times when you could imagine this pile-driving blast of rhythm and melody being pumped out in a sweaty rock dive, although it gained more airily refined sensibilities from the ornate setting.

It was always a relief, however, when Welch slowed things down for dramatic ballads that let her strange, pliant voice shine. She dusted down Never Let Me Go from 2011’s Ceremonials, a song she explained she rarely performed because it reminded her of difficult personal times, but also because “it’s f***ing hard to sing.”

As it came to a swirling, storming close, she stood centre stage, her cape billowing, firing off high notes so rocket-fuelled it seemed as if they could ascend into orbit. What a fantastic, absurd, exciting and talented performer Welch is. It’s good to have her back where she belongs.


Florence + the Machine are touring the UK and Ireland in November. Tickets: florenceandthemachine.net