Barbra Streisand performed for 65,000 people in Hyde Park as if she was entertaining a few close friends in her front room. She sat at a table, poured tea from a white china pot, chatted about her life, showed family slides and occasionally – almost as if it were an afterthought – burst into song with her orchestral band.
The sense of spontaneity was touching and amusing, imbuing songs with potent qualities of intimacy and extemporaneous immediacy – just as long as you didn’t glance at the giant screen over the sound hut (set about 100 metres from the stage), where her jokes and lyrics were scrolling past in huge letters. It was a reminder that the 77-year-old superstar has always been as much an actress as a singer.
Streisand has been one of the most famous women in the world since the early Sixties, starring in stage musicals and films and scoring number one albums across six decades. Like many powerful women in showbusiness, she has a reputation somewhere between diva and control freak. Backstage, there were awed whispers about how a four-hour sound check during which she admonished musicians for not following her notes to the letter. But the image she prefers to convey is reassuringly down-to-earth, a glamorous housewife who likes to kick off her shoes (“They’re killing me”) and sing.
“I’m really sorry we didn’t get time to rehearse that number – I kind of botched it,” she shrugged after a flamboyant rendition of Don’t Rain on My Parade from Funny Girl, a song she has been singing since 1964.
Streisand does not actually play live very often, notching up just over 100 concerts to date. This was the second-biggest show of her entire career (since singing to 150,000 in Central Park, New York in 1968). She had clearly put some thought into a set reflecting her history in the UK, where she starred on stage in Funny Girl in 1966 and made her directorial debut with Yentl in 1982. “You’re used to strong women here,” she noted, appreciatively. “You have had women prime ministers and you still have your beloved Queen.”
She made frequent references to the Royal family, changing lyrics to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s As If We Never Said Goodbye to rhyme “sparkle” with “Meghan Markle”. She showed pictures of encounters with the late Princesses Margaret and Diana and a young (and then unmarried) Prince Charles. “If I’d played my cards right I might have been the first real Jewish princess,” Streisand joked. Yet it is hard to believe her imperial ambitions would have settled for anything less than the throne itself.
She looked magnificent in a diaphanous trouser dress designed by “your very own Dame” Zandra Rhodes “to make sure you could see me at the back”. And her voice remains glorious: rich, supple and velvety in the low tones, tender and fragile in the highest register, intimate or brassy as each song called for, always shifting and exploring emotional dynamics.
She sings like the great actress she is, exploiting a slight shakiness at the edge of her range to express feelings of tremulous uncertainty. Steven Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns and an apparently “unplanned” encore of Judy Garland torch song The One Who Got Away were extraordinary, a supreme artist absolutely in control of her material. Surely no one was taken in by her bashful protestations of winging it. You don’t get this great by accident.
What Streisand artfully conjured was a genuine sense of presence, something very rare in gigs of this scale. It may not have been the slickest, most hit-packed set (she rushed through a medley of Seventies hit singles, including Guilty and Woman In Love) but it felt throughout as if we were all really sharing a moment with a personable icon.
Special guests were introduced like Hollywood neighbours dropping by for a sing song. Lionel Richie crooned through The Way We Were, theatrical tenor Ramin Karimloo raised the bombast level on Music of the Night and there was a huge reception for a frail Kris Kristofferson, her 83-year-old co-star from A Star Is Born in 1976 reprising a wobbly version of that movie’s duet Lost Inside of You.
One glaring clue that Streisand may not be quite the regular housewife she likes to pretend came when an assistant rolled on three dogs in a pram for the star to coo over, all apparently cloned from her much-loved Coton de Tulear canine Samantha. “Sammy didn’t die, she retired from showbiz,” Streisand gaily remarked.
One can only hope retirement is still some way off for Streisand herself, because there won’t be another like her. “I can’t tell if you’re giving me a standing ovation,” she declared at the end of a supreme performance. “Because you’re already standing.”