Anne-Marie: the only way isn’t Essex – this was like a school drama lesson

Anne-Marie performs at The O2 Arena
Anne-Marie performs at The O2 Arena - Joseph Okpako/WireImage

Pop stardom wasn’t always on the cards for Anne-Marie. The 32-year-old singer spent most of her adolescence kicking and punching – literally – as a karate world champion. Her decision to swap martial arts for catchy musings on dating, mental health and female empowerment seems to have paid off: she’s landed a number one single (with British electronica trio Clean Bandit on Rockabye), been nominated for 10 Brit awards, played Glastonbury, and joined the judging panel on The Voice UK back in 2021.

Her long list of accolades made her show at London’s O2 Arena on Wednesday night even more baffling. The “Unhealthy” tour, tied to her most recent album, opened with the Essex singer walking onto the vast stage, alone, backed by no live band or dancers. Instead of the slick choreography and sizzling charisma one expects from a pop show of this scale – at London’s flagship venue, packed with almost 20,000 fans – we were treated to Anne-Marie parking herself on a stool to sing Sad B!tch (where she insists “Being sad is so last year, I’m over it… I just wanna be with my friends, f----d up, getting rich”) and Alarm, an earlier dancefloor-filling hit from 2016 that became a perennial Radio 1 favourite.

Luckily, the stool soon gave way to more ambitious staging: an enormous stacked bed straight from the Princess and the Pea was wheeled out, with Anne-Marie dutifully climbing atop it (dressed in pyjamas so baggy one wondered if she was hoping to fill the void left by the absence of live musicians with fabric) to power through new hits including Trainwreck and Cuckoo.

But she seemed most comfortable singing her older singles, which in turn garnered a more joyous response: hand-held neon lights were waved around in unison to 2002, an irresistibly catchy blend of references to Noughties anthems including Jay-Z’s 99 Problems, Britney Spears’s Baby One More Time and Nelly’s Ride wit Me, and the eternal commercial radio-favourite Rockabye.

The highlight of the night – and when the staging made the most sense artistically – came when Anne-Marie parked herself in front of a mirror to sing Perfect to Me, an affecting, personal ballad about societal pressures to look, dress, and act a certain way; it’s a positive message that was perfect for the predominantly pre-teen, girlish audience, a reminder that even pop stars battle with negative self-image. But it also summed up just how much this was a night of two halves. On the one hand was a confident popstar who has finally begun to carve out an individual voice – and on the other was a performer drowning in a sea of props and stylistic confusion.

The West End-lite production – the giant bed was eventually replaced by a moss-covered piano and a flower-adorned seat straight from Fragonard’s The Swing – meant that the night ultimately felt more like an after-school drama class than a triumphant arena show. When Anne-Marie broke into new track Obsessed, a modern spin on I’d Do Anything from the musical Oliver!, she lost me for good. I loved Mark Lester begging for more gruel as much as any child – but here? Best to leave the musical theatre to the professionals.

Touring the UK next summer;