Madonna, Earls Court, London

Faux-punk kilts, but conical bras take a holiday
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The Independent Culture

The anticipation alone is astonishing. Grown-ups, some of them with children, are giggling and barging their way through the crowds in their haste to get to their seats. Others are busy buying tacky pink cowboy hats for a tenner a go.

Outside we keep our tickets firmly in our pockets for fear we might be wrestled to the ground for them by passing touts. This is, after all, the first of the UK dates that sold out within minutes of being announced. Inside, the crowd are screaming themselves silly even though the stage is still in darkness ­ when the Queen of Pop finally arrives, they look ready to pass out.

Even to the most ambivalent of onlookers, the sight of Madonna in the flesh can only send shockwaves through the system. The fact that she's real, and not just a fantasy figure created for the express purpose of selling magazines, comes as something of a shock.

But there she is, standing at the back of the stage in a Gautier-style faux-punk outfit and already glistening with real-life sweat. A moving platform propels her slowly, teasingly forwards and approximately 10,000 people simultaneously crane their necks to get a better look. Madonna stares piercingly out from under her hair as she sings "Drowned World". Her voice is clear and strong and her presence is big enough to touch all four walls of this vast auditorium.

The dancers wriggle around on the floor. Platforms rise and fall, video screens flash familiar images of Madonna through the ages. In other words, it's all as you'd expect ­ expertly orchestrated, extravagant and theatrical to a fault.

The show is built most around her last two albums, Ray Of Light and Music, a wise choice given that they're her most accomplished records. But for all their limitations, her old hits were great pop songs, and her fans, myself among them, would probably have sold their livers to have heard "Vogue", "Like A Prayer" and "Express Yourself". Not that we're complaining. For pure nostalgia, "Holiday" was the best song of the night, not least because our heroine skips across the stage while clicking her fingers, a Madonna move not seen since around 1986.

Aside from the odd swear-word (one of which was imprinted in rhinestones on the back of her T-shirt), there is little of the controversy that has characterised earlier tours ­ no crucifixes, no pointy bras and little in the way of self-gratification, at least in the sexual sense. Instead we get Madonna the geisha girl in a kimono and Madonna the Samurai warrior, sweeping through the air with the help of a fly rig, and taking out her dancers one by one with a series of balletic high-kicks. Finally we are presented with Madonna, the rhinestone cowgirl. A huge cheer erupts as she begins shuffling from side to side and slapping her thighs to the excellent "Don't Tell Me".

There's the odd baffling moment, such as when Madonna emerges with a guitar for "Candy Perfume Girl". Playing the most elementary chords, she looks about as comfortable as Tony Bennett would as a pole dancer. But then you can't be cool all the time.

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