What’s that, up in the sky? Is it a bird? Is it a badger? No, it’s Brian May, ascending from the top of a stage built around the Queen Victoria Memorial. He’s playing the solo to “We Will Rock You”, accompanied by a legion of Royal Guard drummers, all hammering out the handclap beat and making Freddie Mercury moustaches with their drumsticks. As the ancient scripture says, when Brian May rises above Buckingham Palace, let the joobs commence.
Following an afternoon glugging Majtinis with the very same people who’ll be stealing their wheelie bin next week, flag-wavers in their thousands throng The Mall for a live concert of music, dance and unfathomable weirdness. It’s all to celebrate 70 years of involuntary servitude to a woman at the head of a family accustomed to using our money to buy themselves out of legal trouble. Huzzah! Thank you, ma’am! Partygate, what Partygate?
As the show begins with a touching skit of the queen taking tea with Paddington Bear, we might expect a fairly safe, comfy, nonagenarian-friendly sort of evening – George Ezra, Elton, Rod, Diana Ross. The Kunts are presumably clapped up in the tower for the duration. But what we, and an increasingly dumbstruck stand full of royals, get is one of the most bizarre and unrelenting barrages of random entertainment ever staged.
For two and a half hours, three stages set up in front of the palace gates churn out acts without a second’s pause. Each performer is cranked up to 130 per cent and crams all of their most stirring showstoppers into their few precious minutes onstage. Whoever programmed the bill must have done so on heavy-duty stimulants; it’s as if they ripped names from their cast list and flung them at the schedule in a frenzy, intent on creating a show that resembled the 2012 Olympic opening and closing ceremonies playing simultaneously.
The effect is like curling in a ball on the floor while being brutally beaten by 70 years of culture all at once. Blink during Elbow’s anthemic “One Day Like This” and all of a sudden Diversity are dancing their way through the entirety of British pop history, from Abbey Road to Stormzy inside four minutes. Pop out a much-needed Nurofen during comedian Doc Brown’s rousing rap about British sport and by the time you’ve swallowed it Andrea Bocelli is doing “Nessun Dorma”.
It’s tough to choose the most jolting cultural juxtaposition of the night. High on the list must be Mimi Webb’s ’80s style pop ode to romantic arson, “House on Fire”, which gives way to Andrew Lloyd Webber interviewing Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, in song, at a piano. And that’s just the introduction to a rapid-fire showcase of five different musicals that resembles the Royal Variety Show on meth, leaping between “Circle of Life”, “The Phantom of the Opera”, six s***-kicking R&B wives of Henry VIII and Jason Donovan struggling through “Any Dream Will Do”. No wonder the Queen herself gave the concert the swerve; she likely saw rehearsals from a window and realised her blood pressure wouldn’t take it.
Things get a little less breathless when the bigger acts are given a little space to run with, but even then they tend to turn in 10-minute megamixes of their most bombastic moments. Adam Lambert, dressed like a sunbed sultan, gives Queen the TV talent show frisson they never really needed as “Don’t Stop Me Now” segues hurriedly into “We Are the Champions”. From a purple boudoir, producer Jax Jones presides over a carnival of Latino pop, rap, and R&B, introducing guests Stefflon Don, Mabel and John Newman as if holding a quickfire refresher course in TikTok pop. Duran Duran get through a funk-filled “Notorious” with Nile Rodgers, then put on a sci-fi catwalk show for “Girls on Film” as the entire palace front becomes a gigantic screen doing treasonous things with the colours of the flag.
The most successful acts take their sweet time. Take Alicia Keys, belting out impassioned soul-pop like “Girl on Fire” and “Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down” stood at her piano in a regal black cape as if trying to jump the line to the throne. Celeste singing “What a Wonderful World” like a storm in heaven over Hans Zimmer’s gorgeous orchestral backing. (All the while, the visuals turn the palace into a CGI garden as part of a moving ecological section involving the Royal Ballet and a speech from Prince William.) Prince Charles – introduced by Stephen Fry, doing more toadying than Lord Melchett – giving the most touching tribute of the night to his mother, only to find he’s the warm-up act for Sigala and Ella Eyre, who splatter phallic love rockets across the palace front and launch a gigantic drone corgi into the night sky.
By the end, the bombast just starts to bomb. A performance of The Sound of Music’s “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” featuring Mica Paris and Nicola Roberts becomes painfully overblown, and headliner Diana Ross is having none of it. She lip-syncs – badly, but sweetly – through “Chain Reaction” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, talks over her own vocal track and yet charms us all just by being so happy to be here. A strange end to a head-spinning event that perhaps, unconsciously, acts as an ultra-meta comment on the insanity of the monarchy itself. Because frankly, if the aliens had landed during this bizarre two and a half hours of fawning submissiveness and madcap pop surrealism, they’d consider us beyond help.