Madonna, Earls Court, London

Are you having a good time? You'd better be!
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For £85, of course, you'd expect her to lapdance for you privately. Outrage might be what we've come to expect from Madonna, but this isn't quite what we had in mind – surely it won't cost that much to put Lourdes through an English public school?

The controversy over ticket prices began as soon as Madonna's Earl's Court shows were announced at £85 top whack. But since when, a Madonna apologist might ask, has pop been about quantifiable, Watchdog-approved VFM anyway? And how can you place a price on magic? A Madonna sceptic might reply that a prerequisite of magic is surely mystique, and post-Sex, post-In Bed With..., we know everything there is to know about her, and Madonna has nothing, bar straight-up gynaecology, left in reserve, nothing to hold our fascination and keep us guessing. Furthermore, Madonna has always made pop stardom look such bloody hard work. "Pop should be a spell," said Marc Bolan, but La Ciccone's sorcery is of a prosaic, earthbound kind. With Madonna, you can always see the strings, (on several occasions, literally).

None of which diminishes the genuine electricity in the air around Earl's Court, the buzz of anticipation among a throng made up not only of the predictable queens 'n' teens, but also thirtysomethings who grew up in the era of ra-ras, ribbons and DayGlo bangles. Inside the hall, the atmosphere for Madonna's first proper UK shows since 1993 is unlike anything I have experienced. When the lights go down, when she glides towards us angel-like on a moving pedestal in a lake of dry ice (it's several minutes before we have any evidence that she has feet), the thrill of seeing the most famous female face of the late 20th century in the flesh is impossible to deny.

The bloody-hell-it's-Madonna! factor takes a while to subside. She looks, it must be said, fantastic: straightened blonde hair, tartan mini-skirt, Carnaby Street bondage trews, and that scratching sound you hear is the buyers of every high street diffusion range taking notes.

The Drowned World tour is a triumph of hydraulics, bungee rope acrobatics and cutting-edge choreography. A show divided into four clear acts, the first segment exhibits a punk rock aesthetic, all mohicans and cyber-gear. A Madonna show would be nothing without transgressive sexual imagery, and it isn't long before someone shoves an exhaust pipe between her legs and she "ejaculates" smoke. For "Beautiful Stranger" she treats us to a little pole dance, and before "Frozen", four men, naked but for jockstraps, are suspended upside down from the roof for what seems like an age, blurring the line between S&M and plain cruelty. "Frozen", of course, is the perfect Madonna song title: even when she smiles, those eyes are cold. This, aside from historical confluence and similar coiffeur, is why she's impossible to separate in the imagination from Margaret Thatcher. "Are you having a good time?" she asks in dominatrix tones. We'd better be, or else.

It quickly becomes clear that Madonnais going to take us on a journey, and she'll decide the route. This means a set heavily reliant on the Ray Of Light and Music albums; it means 13 songs before we hear anything that's more than three years old, and 20 before we hear a copper-bottomed Eighties classic. A paranoid attempt to frame herself as part of the present and not the past? The irony here is that, given the ever-decreasing spirals of pop revivalism, in order to be truly contemporary, rather than eschewing her past, Madonna would need to be ripping herself off circa 1984. Luckily, she's hired someone who knows a thing or two about updating Eighties stylings as her keyboardist and musical director. Stuart Price, aka Jacques Lu Cont of Les Rythmes Digitales and Zoot Woman, gives Madonna's live sound the musical equivalent of a botox injection. Over the years, from John "Jellybean" Benitez to Nile Rodgers to William Orbit to Mirwais Ahmadzai, Madonna has shown a remarkable knack to choose the right collaborator at the right time. If she knows what's good for her, she'll put Price in charge next time.

The first real moment comes in "Candy Perfume Girl", when Madonna straps on a Les Paul and starts to play (admittedly, not well). Midway through, she sucks her own finger, and stops the song dead with a pop. The message is unmistakable: she's in complete control. As the song ends, she skips forward, throws an axe heroine pose, thrashes out a crescendo, and screams: "Fuck off, motherfuckerrrrr!!!" It's a moment of perfect synthesis: the woman who invented modern pop, embodies it, embracing dirty rock'n'roll.

Act Two is Japanese: Kabuki make-up, Butoh dance, manga porn on the big screen. This is when it gets seriously spectacular, Madonna flying through the air and beating the living hell out of Samurai assailants like a Tekken superheroine. Overhead, we see footage of her face sickeningly bruised with black eyes, bleeding nostrils and puffed lips, apparently the victim of a wifebeating. After gazing blankly for a few seconds, she then breaks into a wicked grin. The message is deeply ambiguous, but it matches the disturbing imagery of "Mer Girl" immaculately.

Then it all goes horribly yee-haw for Act Three's Country section. An acoustic number ickily dedicated to her husband, an Independence Day skit in a silly white-trash accent ("That was performance art, by the way"), a rodeo bull ("The seat was designed to fit Madonna perfectly," the production notes read, and I'm sure we all heave a collective sigh of relief at that), and several dead raccoons for the dancers. She tells us how much she loves being here, and you can believe it. Madonna has always exhibited a touching inferiority complex towards we supposedly classy Europeans, and a cynic – Camille Paglia, for example – might choose to view her marriage to an English aristo film director in this light.

The fourth part – the Hispanic quarter – is better, Madonna emerging from a padded cell in a sea of Catholic candles. "Lo Que Siente La Mujer" ("What It Feels Like For a Girl") sounds wonderful in Spanish, and a flamenco version of "La Isla Bonita", at last, allows us a little nostalgia. "Holiday", cheekily incorporating the club bootleg which mixed it together with Stardust's "Music Sounds Better", provokes the first real outbreak of dancing, as does "Music". The fast-cut footage on the big screen, showing Madonna in her many incarnations – New York street slut, lacy wedding dress, pink silk Monroe ballgown, burning crucifixes – only serves as a cruel reminder of the songs ("Into the Groove", "Vogue", "Like a Prayer", "Material Girl") she chose not to sing.

Then, with an explosion of gold tinsel, she's gone. Ali G appears on video to confirm that it really is all over, and for once, the leader of the Staines massive isn't joking. Bloody hell, that was Madonna.

s.price@independent.co.uk

Madonna: Earl's Court, SW5 (0870 903 9033) Mon, Tues & Thurs

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