Christine & The Queens: “One of the Gigs of the Year”

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An audible buzz spread across the grand surroundings of the O2 Apollo as an eager and excited crowd began to pour in from the brisk Manchester evening breeze. Students, parents, 30-somethings and everyone from young infants with noise-protecting headphones to grandparents in garishly glistening sequined jackets were in the building; the very essence of Christine and the Queens’ show is clear even prior to its highly anticipated start, a visibly welcoming celebration of diversity and inclusivity. This is a show for everyone, as Chris herself states to a rapturous reception, a clearly defined “safe space”.

The night begins with a half hour set from excitable 20-year-old London MC, Lava La Rue, who along with her producer and DJ bounds on stage as if they have just rolled straight out of Afflecks’ many vintage sections. Delivering short, sharp tracks from debut EP ‘Letra, La Rue’ tests the Apollo bass system to the absolute max. Striding across the stage, she does an admirable job of warming up a crowd in high anticipation of the night’s main attraction calling out for the “old school hip-hop crew” to lend her a hand. Ending the set by reciting the “first poem I ever wrote”, La Rue takes a selfie with the crowd, as proof to her disbelieving Mum that she is playing such an impressive venue before slipping off into the shadows, allowing the remainder of the 2300 bodies assembled within the old theatre space to squeeze in, fetch their final drinks and compose themselves for the remainder of the evening.

What ensues for the rest of the night can only be described as a true musical, visual and theatrical triumph. Christine and the Queens have built a reputation over their so far short yet upwardly mobile careers for displaying some of the most enthralling live shows, combining the majestically captivating vocal prowess of Chris (real name Héloïse Letissier) with a troupe of startlingly talented dancers, contorting their bodies in choreographed unison to wring every drop of sensation from the music. As was on show for all to see at Manchester, a Christine and the Queens concert is much more than just a pop show.
The crowd are treated to every song from latest album ‘Chris’, an album so dripping in 80s style it may as well have arrived packaged in flamboyantly coloured flares and shoulder pads, and a select few from breakout 2014 record ‘Chaleur Humaine’; the “melancholic” sister record to a “musclier, sweatier” second album. Both cover similar topics of diversity, equality, acceptance and self-love, and both lend to a show of unyielding joy and energy, ‘Chris’ in particular telling the autobiographical story of wrestling with pansexuality and gender, and the euphoric freedom that comes with self-recognition and individuality.

Bursting on stage to the rising synths of album opener ‘Comme Si’, Chris and her troupe trade dance moves like the first scene of accomplished musical theatre, opening the show with an explosion of energy. It is this relentless and infectious vigour that continues throughout much of the show, lead single ‘Girlfriend’ drawing early cheers from the audience, as Chris plays the ringleader of her troupe, throwing Jackson-esque moves in slick choreographed sequences.

Photo by Kai Feltham

There are moments of fragility and vulnerability though, each coming before a subtle change in set design. ‘Make Some Sense’ and ‘Paradis Perdus’ offer a first respite for Chris’ dance companions as she holds the stage alone with her band, the audience clasped in the palm of her hand as her bold, rising vocal fills the room. This is never as obvious as during an a-capella rendition of ‘Nuit 17 à 52’, accompanied only by the metronomic claps of the audience. Plucky bilingual members of the Manchester public make their attempts at joining in with the highlighted French choruses, before Chris breaks into a bellowed refrain of Michael Jackson’s ‘Man in the Mirror’, heralding the first of three standing ovations on the night. Cutting through the glorious added theatrical extras that raise a Christine and the Queens show to its heady platform is the fact that throughout, whether accompanying disco beats, R&B licks or simply alone, she can truly sing.

The majesty in Christine and the Queens’ live performances though grows from a unique relationship between music, dance and theatre. Seemingly divided into acts, each song conveys a story, a scene-by-scene theatrical piece patching together Chris’ life story to date, drifting in and out of English and her native French tongue with storytelling tableaus and, at times, an almost Brechtian deployment of physical theatre. ‘The Stranger’ sees the dancers mould their bodies together, one lifted above the other as they glide together in slow motion, the bubble-gum pop of ‘Five Dollars’ is accompanied by performers prancing youthfully around the stage and the emotion of ‘Doesn’t Matter’ is drawn out by one dancer taking centre stage under the spotlight, contorting and throwing his limbs in all directions as the song builds to an almighty crescendo. All of this comes alongside a masterful yet subtle handling of set change, a backdrop once displaying an idyllic landscape, changing to one of a sparse hilltop, replaced later in the show by illusions of solitary rainfall and snow with a lone green flare lighting up the rear of the stage.

Photo by Kai Feltham

Above all though, on this particular night at the Apollo, Letissier shows herself as one of the most captivating and genuinely relatable performers in the world today. Throughout the night, whether at the height of disco-drenched ensemble dance pieces, or bearing all through solo fragile, spot-lit ballads the crowd from front to back hang on her every word. Whilst the dance moves, set changes and theatrical influences are of course choreographed, it is to Letissier and her whole entourage’s credit that the show continues to appear natural and honest, never relying on the dancing as a gimmick and only serving to continually enhance the show as an entirety. Chris plays with the audience in some of her mid-song conversation, lapping up praise and sending it back in equal measure. She tells the story of her life experiences and how this lends towards the musical output, declaring that “trying to fit in is exhausting”, with the “impossible standards of perfection” of the modern day, receiving agreement through whoops and cheers before bursting into breakout single ‘Tilted’.

As the final notes of new single, ‘The Walker’, are played out and the cheers and screams of the crowd rise to fever pitch, Chris appeared up on the balcony of the Circle, peering regally over her dancing subjects below. The encore consists of an emotionally delivered ‘Saint Claude’, sung entirely from her raised vantage point, before running up the stairs, through the lobby, past the merchandise stand and re-appearing amongst the crowd; highlighted by the orb glow of phone cameras. Teasing all by telling them they’ll be sent on their merry way with a final “French ballad”, Chris in fact transports the writhing Manchester crowd to a bouncing Paris nightclub with bass-driven bonus track ‘Intranquillité’. Dancing her way through the crowd, Chris makes her way up onto a strobe lit stage, as the song comes to a close and 2300 audience members rise to their feet in unison, the applause almost deafening.

The show itself ends with Chris thanking her remarkable dancers, band and, as is usually disappointingly rare, set designers and light and sound engineers. The engrossed Manchester throngs are sent off into the night with beaming smiles after one final parting comment from their newly crowned French Queen; “be soft and be daring and take care of eachother, especially now. Merci Manchester.”

As the crowd began to make their way out of the Apollo, the usual post-gig mutterings and whispers from enthralled viewers can be heard all around. “That was one of THE best shows I have ever seen” one young concert-goer exclaimed with a grin so wide you could have seen it shimmering from across the room, one of many such reactions to an almost 2 hour set.

Photo by Kai Feltham

A festival of colour, sound and theatre and a euphoric celebration of diversity, equality and freedom; Christine and the Queens at Manchester Apollo was almost certainly one of the gigs of the year, and a truly exceptional experience for all that were lucky enough to be there. Whether that young gig-goer had seen only one concert in her time, or one hundred; on the evidence of this truly exceptional show, she sure was right.