It’s a fitting celebration… but oh Madge, isn’t it time you grew up? SARAH VINE reviews Madonna’s Celebration Tour
You can tell a lot about an artist by their audience. In Madonna’s case, on the first night of her mammoth Celebration tour at London’s O2 Arena, they – like their idol – came to slay.
A sea of lace fingerless gloves and giant crucifixes, oversized bows and sequinned military hats, leather jackets and white tulle – and yes, more than a few conical bras.
Inside, the atmosphere was one of reverent anticipation. There were quite a few empty seats, perhaps as a result of Hamas’s declared ‘day of jihad’ (Madonna was once a vocal supporter of Israel), but maybe also to do with the eye-watering prices, with some regular tickets costing £400. No matter.
Who better than to introduce the Queen of Pop herself than Drag Queen Bob (or ‘Slag Queen Bob’, as he referred to himself), winner of the eighth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Channelling Queen Charlotte from Bridgerton, Bob took to the stage in full Regency wig and gown, whipping the audience into a frenzy with a potted history of Madonna’s illustrious career spanning four decades.
A flourish of his monocle and she appeared, in full cape and halo, beneath another giant halo, belting out Nothing Really Matters from her 1998 album Ray of Light.
The audience was loving the nostalgia, the trademark Madonna mischief, the colour, the costumes
Madonna performs on the first night of her ‘Celebration Tour’ at London’s O2 Arena
The Madonnas in the row behind me went wild; a man three seats down in a leather harness and singlet simply bellowed ‘Icon!’
From there it was cape off, corset out, dancers on stage – and straight into Everybody. There was an explosion of mum-dancing from the audience as the stage resembled a scene from the King’s Road in the mid-1980s.
‘Only Madonna could look that good in a knee brace,’ I thought to myself, as she bounced around to Get Into The Groove like a woman half her age of 65. Then it was time for a little chit-chat.
She talked about being an ‘anorexic dancer’, about how her father had refused to help her, how she never gave up even when she was hungry and homeless.
For a stadium of 20,000-odd people, it felt strangely intimate. Then she grabbed a guitar and gave a screeching rendition of Burning Up. Quite a few people sat down for that one, possibly because unlike our icon we weren’t wearing knee braces. Then it was a beer and more tales of struggling youth, including how she used to go on dates with men purely with the intention of using their bathroom facilities.
‘Blow jobs for showers,’ she quipped, which – knowing that her kids were in the audience – made me slightly wince.
She was about to launch into her next hit – Open Your Heart – when the first-night gremlins struck, and she and Queen Bob had to spend the next ten minutes or so telling rather lukewarm jokes while assorted bits of electronic wizardry failed to do as they were told.
Lourdes Leon and Madonna perform during opening night of The Celebration Tour at The O2 Arena
It was a shame: The energy dipped, people went on their phones.
Back on track, and it was time for a lot of rather complicated sexy dancing which segued into a skit about 80s Madonna being turned away from fabled Manhattan club the Paradise Garage, which in turn segued into Holiday, all neon pinks and greens and Vivienne Westwood kilts.
So far, so fun. The audience was loving the nostalgia, the trademark Madonna mischief, the colour, the costumes.
Then a change of pace, and the mood became more reflective. Live To Tell was recast, rather spectacularly, as a eulogy for all the victims of Aids, Madonna floating in an open box against giant black-and-white photos of pop culture icons lost to the disease: Freddie Mercury, Robert Mapplethorpe, countless others. Up floated a single red balloon.
From then on, the whole show took a distinctly operatic – some might say over-the-top, bombastic – turn.
Like A Prayer kicked off with various Christ-like figures in leather gimp masks writhing to Gregorian chant inside giant Perspex boxes against a backdrop of neon crucifixes. As you do.
A troupe of sexy boxers in sequinned gloves postured obligingly for Erotica, and we were treated to a recreation of the infamous conical bra/bed/masturbation dance scene.
For this she enlisted the help of an alter ego dressed as her younger self, which I think we can all agree takes onanistic self-indulgence to a whole new level.
If this show has a problem it’s that it’s rather too long, too self-indulgent – and has too many pretentious interludes
Things got even hotter and heavier for Justify My Love – quite literally, as the stage burst into flames while an assortment of Biblical figures did unspecified Old Testament things to a reading from The Book Of Revelation.
No doubt intended as deeply meaningful; in practice, rather tedious.
Nevertheless, the hits were there – and, Beyonce-style, she even made it a family affair with spirited onstage appearances from daughters Lourdes and Mercy. The latter is a bit of a star.
If this show has a problem it’s that it’s rather too long, too self-indulgent – and has too many pretentious interludes. I can see why – the body of work is huge, and there’s a lot of ground to cover. Plus, at 65, she needs her rest breaks. But the main issue, I think, is that she seems to have slightly misjudged her audience.
Quite a few around me left early, retreated to the bar or just went on their phones, bored by the overblown symbolism and endless, slightly embarrassing, onstage smut and snogging.
Waiting for the train after, the overall post-gig chit-chat I heard was not universally positive. I think what she hasn’t quite grasped is that her core fans (and the ones who can afford the tickets) are old (well, old-ish, at any rate).
We love her because she’s been there throughout our lives: I can still remember dancing to Like A Virgin as a teenager.
But while we’ve all grown up and moved on, she does not seem to have done.
She still wants to be that struggling 19-year-old living the life of a waif and stray in 1980s New York.
She still fancies herself ‘edgy’, still yearns to be one of the cool kids, when in fact she’s a grown woman, a global icon – and the true queen of pop – who really has nothing to prove to anyone any more.
If only she could stop trying to be something she’s not, she would be an even greater icon than she already is. And this review would be five stars instead of four.
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