It may not have as many seats as the O2 further down the Thames, but Shakespeare’s Globe is just as ballsy a booking for a musician – effectively announcing yourself as both bard and actor, and aligning your songwriting with the greatest lyricism in the English language. Plan B, AKA rapper-cum-soul singer Ben Drew, is also perhaps trying to reclaim it as a site for raucous everyday drama, and arrives as a groundling, ringing a bell as he walks through the crowd to the stage.
There are flourishes of contemporary theatricality, too – toy soldiers dropping from the sky, giant light-up balls punted around the audience, and a solo acoustic set from the gallery surrounded by masked, inevitably Snapchatting punters.
But his hubris is shown, first, by the very arena he’s chosen. The tight amphitheatre is ideal for a wondering “to sleep, perchance to dream”, less so, it turns out, for two guitarists playing Les Paul power chords amid Radio 2 northern soul. The sound whirls in a wooden gyre until its nuance is spun out and exhausted. There are myriad technical problems, too, from a mic that makes Drew sound like he’s singing through moss, to a troublesome earpiece, and at one point a guitarist being forcibly denuded of his instrument; three songs need restarting. Luckily for him, this first gig after an extended paternity leave means that the crowd remains loyal.
At his best, you can see why. A pair of R&B ballads in the centre of the set, including new song Stranger, are focused and gorgeous; clean, close harmonies shift with exacting purpose around each other, and Drew’s falsetto is on point. Anti-gentrification anthem Ill Manors still crashes about with genuine mayhem, and Prayin’s melody remains strong enough to cut through the woolly mic.
But while Drew’s singing is robust, it’s no more remarkable than the soulboys you might find on a cruise ship or flat-roofed pub on a Friday night, while his surefooted flow is too often put to the service of tin-eared rap-rock doggerel like Lost My Way. The gulf between his ambition and the reality of his conservative songwriting is laid bare as he closes the main set with the limp ska-pop of Wait So Long, the inflatable balls falling flaccid around his feet, their lights dying. As glitter cannons fire unwarranted across the standard-issue soul of Stay Too Long, it’s clear his vaulting ambition has perhaps overleapt itself.