Pride Festival – Preston Park, Brighton – 4th August 2018

Photo by Jamie MacMillan

There is no bigger event in Brighton than Pride, and this year’s celebration of inclusivity and equality broke all records with more than 450,000 in town on a sweltering Saturday. At Preston Park, tens of thousands gathered in order to witness a truly staggering event. Britney Spears in Brighton. When the news of her booking was announced back in January, you could almost hear the entire city draw in its breath sharply in disbelief. That noise turns into an ear-splitting shriek when she finally appears on stage a few minutes before 9pm.

In truth, Britney and the preceding Ella Eyre breathe life into a main stage line-up that threatens to drift into a one-note, too-safe, mainstream, middle-of-the-road pop event. MNEK is perfect party material, while Mabel (the daughter of Neneh Cherry and Cameron McVey) looks all the world like a star-in-the-making. Sets from Pixie Lott and Louise meanwhile gently wash over the audience, both perfectly fine but only briefly raising the pulses. None of this is helped by the sadly-growingly familiar sight of a largely empty VIP section at the front of the arena, a wide open space existing where fans should be partying. Eyre meanwhile, is simply sensational. ‘Waiting All Night’ is ferocious, but it is ’Came Here For Love’ that feels like a true anthem of the day with its refrain of: “This is what we came here for, we came here for love.”

As anticipation and excitement rise for Britney, with it comes a distinct crush as far too many people were allowed to flood into a secondary section just behind the VIP area (thankfully, the solid crowd barriers that presented more of a hindrance than a help were removed for day two). The atmosphere is truly insane as her troop of dancers emerge to ‘Work Bitch’, with an audible shock as she appears from nowhere. To be honest, Britney appears to be in as much a state of disbelief as the crowd – her mic picking up her asking one of her dancers “Where are we?” before turning back to scream “What’s up Brighton Pride!” It is the first in a series of gloriously bonkers moments from one of the true pop icons of the last 30 years.

There truly is no-one quite like Britney Spears, and it is a performance that can just as easily be described as terrible as it can extraordinarily amazing. Her lip-syncing doesn’t even seem to be existing in the same time zone as the vocals, and at times she looks obviously tense on stage (it’s easy to forget what a big deal this tour is for her after a long Las Vegas residency). Yet despite that, it is glorious. Camp, over-the-top, sassy, sexy, ridiculous – it is all of that and much more. The production levels are at a scale that dwarf everything this city has ever seen, with multiple costume-and-theme changes. It is nothing short of artpop of the very highest order, a performance in the truest sense of the word with exceptional dance choreography throughout. There are circus freaks, bearded ladies, pole dancers, a crowd member on a leash appeared for one song, there was jungle fever, risqué outfits, laser shows, you name it. And most of all, bangers.

‘…Baby One More Time’ and ‘Oops!… I Did It Again’, two tracks that monopolised radio airplay at the turn of the 00s, are tossed out as a medley early on in a show that concentrates more on her mid-to-later years. ‘Gimme More’, complete with the legendary: “It’s Britney bitch” (screamed so loud by the crowd that it forces a laugh from her) is explosive, but as the end grows near the likes of ‘If U Seek Amy’ and ultimate banger ‘Toxic’ make perfect Pride fare before rounding off with a crowd-pleasing ‘Till The World Ends’. How they top this next year must already be causing some head-scratching at Pride HQ.

The night ends on a sour note of course, with the well-publicised mess-up at Brighton Station. With trains arriving and departing empty as people were not allowed to enter the station, there was a complete lack of control or organisation. The night teetered on the edge of disaster with thousands crushed against locked iron gates, thankfully instead it only caused embarrassment as the Brighton Centre had to be opened as a refuge for stranded travellers overnight. That’s simply not good enough, and the issues behind this should be urgently addressed in the coming months. What a shame for Pride that as many Sunday morning headlines were about this as were about Britney.

Jamie MacMillan