Rock column, Mail on Sunday, August 6 2006

Wembley Arena

Last weekend BBC2 was discussing the death of the variety show. In fact, itís alive and well, just not being shown on television. Madonnaís Confessions tour, running for eight nights at Wembley, is an all-round extravaganza of singing, dancing, dressing up, gymnastics, innovative design and creative use of video. Itís not so much a pop concert as a 21st-century circus.

It begins with animals: horses, cantering handsomely across the big screens, as in a bank advert. The show is in four segments and this one is called Equestrian. The clips are beautiful and startlingly sharp, but also irrelevant and derivative (of Goldfrapp). Madonna has quite enough horsepower of her own.

A giant glitterball descends and opens to disclose a neat little woman who could be a recently widowed riding instructor. After trying on dozens of personas, Madonna increasingly projects herself as a teacher. At Live 8, she was the gym mistress from hell, telling 200,000 people what to do. Here she carries a whip, which suits her. If the hits ever dry up, a second career beckons in one of those Teenage Boot Camp programmes.

Her physique is so chiselled, you donít know whether to gasp or giggle. Soon we are seeing a lot of her bottom, which again is remarkable, if hard to take entirely seriously. Not that the fans are bothered. The look on their faces says ĎOh my God, itís Madonnaí. At the centre of the 21st-century circus is the great ladder of celebrity, and she has spent decades on its highest rung.

This is her third world tour in five years, no mean feat for a working mum. Like the triumphant Reinvention (2004), itís a high-tech, high-gloss spectacle, but like the disappointing Drowned World (2001), itís strangely short of hits. Out of 21 songs, only five are old favourites. If the emphasis on dancing explains the absence of Crazy For You and Frozen, then why no Vogue, Holiday or Into The Groove?

The old hits have a vital role to play, supplying emotion, even when they are cheesy: Like A Virgin, featuring Madonna pole-dancing playfully before images of falling jockeys, is good fun. Songs like this are part of the fabric of our lives. When she ditches them for album tracks, the show goes cold.

Madonnaís dancing is formidable, her singing adequate, but her stagecraft is patchy. The much-touted crucifixion scene looks, thanks to a designer tiled cross, more like an accident in the changing-room at her gym. Part two of the evening, Bedouin, feels gratuitous, and a dig at George Bush almost makes you sympathise with the man.

Part three, entitled Never Mind The Bollocks, is an excursion into punk, involving baffling revamps of I Love New York and Ray Of Light. Madonna joins her band (the only time she appears to notice them) and straps on an electric guitar, of all things. The guitar couldnít look more unhappy if it had been handed to the Queen. Madonna would do better to forget punk, fit in even more dancing, and rename this section Never Mind The Buttocks.

The final chapter, Disco, is much more her. La Isla Bonita generates warmth and Hung Up, now her biggest hit ever, delivers a storming leotard-clad climax, turning the arena into a whirl of camp, adrenaline and gold balloons.

Apart from the hit shortage, there is just one glaring weakness. Aged 47, Madonna is still hopeless at chit-chat, alternately hectoring and ingratiating. She repeats her Live 8 blooper, addressing her fans as something unprintable. She simpers, ĎI never thought Iíd say this in London, but itís good to be home.í Never thought sheíd say it? She said it last time.

As for the confessions, there arenít any.