After he arrives on stage, it takes Robbie Williams all of about four minutes – not enough time to actually finish the opening Let Me Entertain You – to ask the audience if they still love him. They answer loudly in the affirmative, but it's rather a foregone conclusion.
Plenty of pop stars decide they aren't that interested in mainstream fame, as Williams seemed to do around the time of his 2006 album Rudebox, and plenty of them subsequently change their minds, but very few actually succeed in getting it back, which Williams also seems to have done: his ninth album Take The Crown has topped the charts, as did his single Candy.
He certainly worked for it: it's hard to think of another pop star in recent times who's seemed so openly desperate for their new album to be a success. They tend to affect an aura of cool disinterest about commercial success, but the ability to affect a cool disinterest has never really been one of Williams's strong points. First, he cajoled, intimating that he might give up music altogether if Take The Crown wasn't an enormous smash, then he started turning up everywhere: collecting gongs at award ceremonies, switching on the Oxford Street Christmas lights, doling out advice and performing on X Factor.
It all paid off: tonight's show has an understandably triumphal air about it. The staging is high camp hubris. There are six huge disco mirrorballs in the shape of Williams's head and a hydraulic stage in the shape of a crown. At one juncture, he mounts a pulpit decorated with the Take That logo, in front of a huge fake stained-glass window with fire belching out of it and delivers a speech about the boyband's formation to the strains of Also Sprach Zarathustra.
Anything from Rudebox or its more thoughtful predecessor Intensive Care has been expunged from the setlist, leaving a gig comprised largely of huge hit singles: Rock DJ, Come Undone, Feel, She's The One, the latter one of three songs he performs with his former co-writer, Guy Chambers, playing piano.
When Chambers appears, it's a rather touching moment – the pair famously fell out in the middle of the Noughties – but the rest of the time, Williams plays it for laughs: cracking jokes about Rudebox and his relationship with Geri Halliwell, doing a Norman Wisdom walk, illustrating Mr Bojangles with a burst of the Gangnam Style dance, chastising a member of the audience whose celebratory air-punch, he notes, looks troublingly like a Nazi salute.
It all suggests that at 38, Williams has decided to embrace what he always was, but appeared most troubled by the prospect of being: a sort of cross between a pop star and a light entertainer. If that sounds like an insult, it's not intended as one: the prerequisite of a light entertainer is that they're entertaining, which Williams's live show really is.
The flaming stained-glass window aside, there's not much of the big visual gimmickry that tends to mark out pop shows: it relies on Williams's personality and arsenal of hits to carry it, which they do. The audience lap it up. "It's still the same!" he yells delightedly, as the arena becomes a sea of waving hands during Millennium. It is, which is a not-unimpressive feat.
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