Madonna, Manchester MEN Arena

Older, tamer but still mistress of the spectacle

The atmosphere is like nothing else you'll experience. A full hour before Our Lady takes the stage the crowd are in a state of hyperventilation, letting off great cheers with every dip in the lights. By the time she finally emerges from beneath the floor (45 minutes late, just because she can), the temperature goes through the roof.

The atmosphere is like nothing else you'll experience. A full hour before Our Lady takes the stage the crowd are in a state of hyperventilation, letting off great cheers with every dip in the lights. By the time she finally emerges from beneath the floor (45 minutes late, just because she can), the temperature goes through the roof.

Even after 20 years, the sight of the real-life Madonna sends shock-waves through the system. Here she is, the most famous woman on earth in thigh-high boots and a glittering corset. Blimey, you think to yourself, she really does exist.

Madonna stares out unsmilingly from behind her shiny blonde curls, her voice clear and strong and a presence great enough to reach all corners of this vast auditorium. By virtue of her longevity, she may no longer be mistress of the unpredictable, but her live shows are still a major event - not as huge as the Olympics' opening ceremony, though possibly as expensive.

That Madonna has elected to call this the Reinvention Tour is either outrageous folly or a joke (remember: Madge does irony these days). At this point in her career, the singer has nowhere left to go but backwards.

And so, to the joy of the thirty and fortysomething straight woman/gay man crowd, our hostess offers up a set list touching on the best - and, in some cases, the worst - moments in her career. Alongside recent hits such as "Don't Tell Me'', "Frozen'' and "Music'', we get "Like A Prayer'', "Material Girl'', "Hanky Panky" and a pared-down "Papa Don't Preach''. We are also treated to trapeze artists, tap dancers, fire eaters, a skateboarder and a disco-dancing bagpiper.

In contrast to the raunchiness of her previous shows, this is a comparatively strait-laced affair with age-appropriate costumes and dance routines built around La Ciccone's continuing love affair with yoga.

Even so, in terms of sheer physicality, the show is enthralling and Madonna is as light-footed and athletic as a cat. During "Vogue", she assumes the crab position while continuing to sing the chorus; later, in "Music" she plays the club diva with all the dignity befitting a woman of her age (she's only 15 years from a pension, you know).

The set design is, of course, a feat of hydraulics - platforms rise and fall, video screens bearing Hebrew script sweep across the stage, a giant catwalk unfolds over our heads. At up to £150 a ticket you expect more than a cardboard backdrop but the seamlessness and panache with which the evening is orchestrated defies belief.

Yet this is also a show of strange juxtapositions, one in which theatricality is often substituted for sentimentality. Each time Madonna picks up a guitar (I know, I know, but she's getting better at it), you know a message is soon to follow. When an image of John Lennon appears on the screens and the opening refrain of "Imagine" strikes up, the whole world groans as one.

But what else did we expect? If the political idealism of "American Life'', in which dancers dressed in combat fatigues do push-ups against a backdrop of news footage from the Iraq war, comes across as similarly ham fisted, it's forgivable. Surely we're used to Madge's clumsy political statements by now. Yes, she's a woman of many flaws but when it comes to spectacle there's no one who can touch her.



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