With the nation in mourning, our dreams of World Cup glory thwarted, there was perhaps no better remedy than that provided by Rita Ora at Henley Festival. The singer gave a smouldering performance to kick off the 2018 line-up, bursting with an infectious energy that had the whole crowd on their feet. Even in light of England’s disappointment, Rita’s spirited songs were a perfect antidote to the news that it wouldn’t be coming home after all.
As she took to the floating stage, there was no doubt that Ora had quite the task on her hands. Festival-goers were decidedly sullen after watching the football from the boat tent screens — a match which delayed the main performance by an hour. However, in spite of the challenging reception, Rita was determined to lift her audience’s spirits. Opening with Your Song, the singer paraded onto stage with a purpose, encouraging everyone to dance and sing along. To enthusiastic cheers, she shouted, “I know you’re all in amazing spirits, because we’re winners, aren’t we!?”
By the time she reached her second song, I Will Never Let You Down, the atmosphere was completely different — spectators were joining in, with barely a soul left sitting. Perhaps this was down to Rita’s bold recognition of the elephant in the room. Stopping the band between songs, she said, “I just have to state the obvious — aren’t we proud of England?” Despite being the star of the show, it somehow felt that she was somehow one of us, breaking down the celebrity barriers.
This was arguably the most striking part of Rita Ora’s performance. Even before the show, she was watching the football in the boat tents, amongst the many people who’d paid to watch her sing. During Hot Right Now, she set her security team on alert by stepping down into the crowd. There wasn’t a hint of ‘diva’ about her, no air of superiority. Moreover, refreshingly, it seemed as if she really enjoyed her own music, at times dancing with her eyes closed as if no one was watching. It was this sense of authenticity that made her so captivating to watch.
Of course, the neon costume, eye-catching lighting and six energetic dancers were also a part in holding people’s attention. Colour was a clear production focus – Ora wore a bright orange waistcoat, her dancers sported multi-coloured sunglasses, and the lighting constantly flashed between green, purple and blue. Though this could’ve been a distraction, Rita Ora constantly commanded the audience’s attention, oozing confidence as she strutted around the stage. From crowd favourites of Doing It and Lonely Together, to new songs Girls and not-yet-released Summer Love, Rita was note-perfect, her voice perhaps even more impressive in person than recorded.
As she closed the set with Anywhere, the memory of World Cup woes had all but evaporated. Fireworks exploded behind the stage as Rita Ora said her final thanks, declaring to the audience, “You took me anywhere tonight.” Though faced with a melancholy crowd, Rita’s electric performance was full of life — a testament to her superb skill as a singer.
Tonight Grace Jones will headline the floating stage. Limited tickets still available via www.henleyfestival.co.uk/