Madonna live at the O2, London: Unbeatable pop nostalgia with a glug of genuine innovation and a side-helping of the ludicrous

Seeing is believing as Madonna's outrageously ambitious Celebration Tour finally launches at London's O2

How on earth do you mentally prepare for a performance a full 40 years in the making? That’s the question I’m asking myself as I travel to Greenwich to see the artist I first fell for aged six, having absorbed The Immaculate Collection by osmosis through my older sister’s bedroom wall. 

Famously allergic to dwelling on past glories, last year Madonna committed to a long-overdue live lookback at her storied career. Having overcome a severe health scare in the summer, this weekend she’s finally made good on her promise, kicking off her 78-date Celebration World Tour at London’s O2 Arena.

En route I re-read the slightly surreal pre-show press release. Framing Madonna’s story in numbers, it gives the same reverence to genuine feats like “330 million albums sold”, as it does baffling brags including,“8 humidifiers in Madonna’s dressing room,” and “3 travelling mobile gyms.” Weirdly, it’s perhaps the perfect precursor to tonight’s festivities, which see the 65-year-old pop icon seasoning unbeatable pop nostalgia with a glug of genuine innovation and a healthy side-helping of the ludicrous. 

The show itself is carved into distinct acts, each celebrating a different phase of Madonna’s career, from her NYC club roots (‘Into The Groove’, ‘Holiday’) to the shape-shifting electro-pop of the late ’90s/early ’00s (‘Ray Of Light’, ‘Don’t Tell Me’), via Erotica-era raunch. To be honest, “The Eras Tour” would have been a much better name for her latest jaunt, but then that banner has already been trademarked by a pop star whose wildest artistic pivot to date appears to be *checks notes* writing with the guy from The National. 

The staging is madly ambitious. Think 4,400 square ft. of stage with sprawling walkways reportedly inspired by the grid of Manhattan, a two-tiered rotating central platform, giant projections and a floating frame to carry Madonna 30ft above the arena floor. There’s pin-sharp choreo from a huge team of dancers, MCing courtesy of Rupaul’s Drag Race winner Bob the Drag Queen, and musical cameos from Madonna’s children, David, Mercy and Estere. It’s simultaneously a magnetic spectacle like no other and all a little too much – a bit like Madonna herself, who remains a proud provocateur first and foremost. 

“Is this a Sunday night crowd?” she teases at the start of the set. “Can I say bad words, can I do naughty, provocative things?” Taking the audience’s wild screams as carte blanche to accentuate everything about her persona that her fiercest critics hate, she makes out with a topless female dancer during a stellar outing of ‘Hung Up’, and spends most of ‘Justify My Love’ writhing in a pile of semi-naked men.

Not every moment hits the mark. There are distinctly am-dram reenactments of her early career – from being refused entry to the Paradise Garage (complete with dancers playing the roles of Basquiat and Selena Quintanilla-Pérez) to being man-handled by police during a snippet of ‘Human Nature’. More frustrating is the fact the show’s late start means we’re denied a final encore, with the set curtailed at 11pm on Erotica-single ‘Rain’.

But when The Celebration Tour is good, it’s damn-near unbeatable. From a wickedly dark reimagining of ‘Like A Prayer’ interpolating Sam Smith and Kim Petras’ smash ‘Unholy’ to the extended version of ‘Vogue’ staged as a drag ball, the hits remain utterly undeniable. Even better is a faithful rendition of True Blue-ballad ‘Live To Tell’, which sees Madonna soaring above the arena surrounded by images of creatives lost to the AIDS epidemic, including Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe and Cookie Mueller. 

It’s genuinely moving moments like these that suggest tonight’s jam-packed production might have benefited from a little more breathing room. And yet, conversely, it’s these elevated levels of ambition and audacity that continue to cement Madonna’s status as the Queen of Pop. So, in answer to the original question, how do you prepare for The Celebration Tour? The answer is, you can’t. Truly, seeing is believing. 

Photography by Kevin Mazur