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The Independent Culture

At a time when every emerging pop artist is gauged in the credibility stakes by how "raw" and "honest" they appear to be, thank God for Madonna. Ultra-slick and fantastically fake her act may be, but this is pure escapism.

"There's a lot of people who talk and talk, but how many walk the walk?'' she asks her reverent multitude of 50,000, presumably talking about the world's leaders, flashed on screen with images of African children suffering from Aids. What walk she walks is anyone's guess, as this is plastic pop that only pretends to have a soul. She's playing a game of charades, but a well-crafted one. This is no mere gig - it's the ultimate faux-theatrical showbiz extravaganza, a multimedia dazzler, with lavish props, video virtuosity and breathtaking athleticism from the lady Madonna and her top-flight troupe.

From the moment she first emerges from a disco ball encrusted with $2m-worth of Swarovski crystals, clad in Jean Paul Gaultier's S&M riding gear, it's evident that we've been teleported to planet Madonna.

The recent song "Future Lovers" segues into Donna Summer's "I Feel Love", and soon the blockbuster "Like a Virgin" gets the crowd jumping in ecstasy. This, the first stop on the European leg of her tour, boasts a bigger staging than any of the $86m-grossing US dates, and it's mainly standing. "Thank God for that,'' she declares, "I hate it when everyone's sat down." Then she says she wishes she could touch us. Oh, she's such a tease!

Despite Madonna's many reinventions, there's no escaping the material girl. She encapsulates the great capitalist dream while exposing, and revelling in, the hypocrisy of it all. Well aware that shock sells, she raises two fingers to the Church; she mockingly wears a crown of thorns while rising on a crucifix for one of the show's highlights, "Live To Tell", and flirts with the seven deadly sins.

It's a show of four parts. It begins and ends with her as the disco diva, while the middle is given over to a Bedouin section, featuring the Hebrew singer Yitzhak Sinwani. Later, Madonna transforms into a rock chick and appears to have a grasp of basic punk chords as she straps on a guitar. Culminating in a blast through her pop life, "La Isla Bonita", "Erotica" and "Lucky Star" form a blazing finale. Madonna expertly consolidates her grip on the pop throne. Long will she reign.

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