White port and willpower make for quite a cocktail. About halfway through tonight's two-hour set, the first of 14 in London, Madonna takes a break on top of a baby grand piano. She drains a glass of the Douro region's finest export – "sipping my pain just like champagne", perhaps, as per the lyrics of Madame X.
Madonna grew fond of white port when she first moved to Lisbon, where her footballing son, David, enrolled in Benfica's youth academy three years ago, and tonight it combines very well with Madonna's steely self-possession. Forget the overplayed G&T boom – a little fortified wine allows the embattled singer to deliver a knockout show, full of stagecraft and chutzpah, spy chic and revolutionary zeal, in spite of well-publicised limitations.
The first night of this London residency was pulled because doctors once again ordered her to rest. It was the latest in a series of missed shows as the Madame X tour has wound its way through theatre venues in North America and Lisbon, often into the small hours. A friend who went to see her in Los Angeles reported the venue was Bikram-hot, presumably to keep Madonna's muscles supple.
Tonight, this dancer turned singer shows she can still bust out some spectacular moves. Madonna does a handstand in a circular nook, gets dragged and thrown around by her dancers, and kneels down at the front of the stage to take a Polaroid of herself and count up wads of cash. Only because this is Madonna – her commitment to perpetual motion has always matched her desire to rattle the cage of the Catholic church – do you notice the absence of high heels and the pared-back legwork. How to get down from the piano, with a dodgy knee, a sub-par hip and a mild port high? A dancer tips up the piano lid and Madonna slides off, grinning. Another workaround: for Frozen, a slow-burner about emotional constipation from 1998's Ray of Light album, Madonna sings as her eldest daughter, Lourdes, does the dancing for her, via a video projection.
The wine rush seems to make Madonna even more garrulous. These theatre shows have been designed for greater intimacy, a way to deliver the politics and world bops of her actually very good Madame X album less bombastically than in an arena. There is a lot of audience interaction, not least when Madonna plonks herself down next to a poor soul from Sardinia and unconscionably mocks him for sourcing interior design fabrics. The Polaroid auction for charity is crass and weird, as Madonna fields cash offers from a couple of bidders who have already forked out for stall seats, one of whom climbs on stage and receives a tongue-lashing.
Mostly, though, the proximity is intoxicating – the singer-percussionists of the Orquestra Batukadeiras join Madonna for the rousing, Cape Verde-themed Batuka filing in through the stalls. At the end, everyone – musicians, dancers – sashays out through the stalls too. If the seat prices are ridiculous (£140 is typical, peaking with VIP packages at around £1,000), the sense of occasion is only heightened by the absence of mobiles, safely tucked away in Faraday pouches. "How come no one's taking my picture?" Madonna jokes, then confides: "I consider this an intervention for all of us."
There are roughly 20 songs in the set, but some of the chitchat almost deserves equal billing with bangers such as the deathlessly wonderful Vogue and Like a Prayer, and a restyled version of La Isla Bonita ("a Portuguese lullaby"), the song that first crystallised Madonna's now on-trend Latinate bent.
"I'm now going to use my British accent," Madonna announces, primly. She was, she says, aghast listening back to interviews from her London years. "Why did you let me do that to myself? I'm from Michigan!" A notoriously tardy diva, Madonna refers repeatedly to a warning from Westminster council to bring down the nine-ton fire curtain if she breaks curfew. We learn that David supports Tottenham.
Underneath all the topspin, the show itself is strong. Somehow, Madonna can talk about gun control – in the arresting opener, God Control – and how she learned about Portuguese fado from the late fadista Celeste Rodrigues without grinding gears. A 16-year-old Portuguese guitarist joins Madonna on stage for an impressive attempt at the dramatic Portuguese folk form. (The audience convinces Madonna that it's perfectly legal for him to have a swig of beer afterwards.) If anything, Madonna's voice has only improved with the years.
She can combine a girl crush on Joan of Arc – the song Dark Ballet, played out via a Coldplay-like penchant for revolutionary uniforms – with an extended meditation about the death of American influence in the international sphere. Hard-won self-actualisation is juxtaposed with smut, Moroccan gnawa with a Japanese viola player on Come Alive. The narrative line throughout is that Madame X – Madonna's latest incarnation – is an international woman of mystery, travelling around from Kingston to Angola to Medellin.
Little mentioned in gig reports thus far is the excellent lighting work and shadow-play, particularly when shadowy hands assail Madonna in her circular nook. Dancers frequently carry a star's costume change interlude, but the section tonight when nine dancers spasm to some beats created out of gasps was so intense you wish it had gone on longer.
The use of images of the typewritten word is trenchant throughout. A long intro repeatedly hammers the words of US writer James Baldwin into the consciousness: "Art is here to prove that safety is an illusion." The letters clack out, resembling pistol cracks, and a rubber-boned dancer falls repeatedly to the ground as more gunshots ring out. The beats of the letters become the percussion to songs. This rat-a-tat may have begun as part of the tour's retro spy-game styling, but it also supports the witness-bearing of writers and journalists.
Clearly, Madonna is a member of the 1%, and her outrage at environmental crimes sits uneasily with a jet-set lifestyle. But her treatment of the issues is full of believable anger; her proactive and progressive grandstanding dates back to the 80s. On Killers Who Are Partying, in the wake of Donald Trump's nominal Middle East peace deal, she sings the line "I will be Palestine" – a change from the usual "Israel" lyric. It prompts a shiver-inducing cheer.
One of the finest songs on Madame X is Extreme Occident, a mature assessment of a very female state of being: being told what she is or isn't. "I wasn't lost," sings Madonna, "I was right". Perhaps most of all, this Madame X tour is an advert for trusting one's own instincts, however contradictory and eclectic they may be.
I'm not sure who was having more fun at the opening of Madonna's London residency, the audience or the star. She sang, she danced, she joked and she beamed with almost childlike glee at the crowd's adoring response. "How happy I am to have made it this far," she declared, calling London "my second home."
Madonna first played the city in 1983 to 1500 early adopters at the Camden Palace. Her next London gig was Wembley Stadium. She was clearly delighted to be back in a venue where she could not just reach out and touch the audience, she could descend from the stage and sit in their laps. "Its so intimate. Its gorgeous and a thrill for me to be able to see all your faces."
Nobody is going to mistake the salubrious 2,200-capacity Palladium for a cosy club. But the last time Madonna played London, in 2015, it was two dates at the O2 Arena for almost 30,000 people. That is about the same number she will play to across all 14 nights in London, if she makes it through her residency in one piece.
Madonna is 61, and reportedly having problems with her knees. She has already cancelled ten shows on this tour, including what would have been its London debut on Monday. But she was in fine form shimmying and shaking across the stage in a set full of artful and exuberant choreography.
Indeed, sometimes you might wish she would just sit down and sing, because, in the moments when she did just that, she showed she was in exceptionally good voice. An interlude performing a Portuguese fado folk song was scintillating, whilst a stark rendition of 1998 electro ballad Frozen, performed solo onstage to a video of eldest daughter Lourdes dancing, was a highlight of the night.
But Madonna likes to give bang for bucks and this was not a cheap night out. Face-value tickets were priced between £376 and £1,247. What fans were presumably paying for was a chance to get up close and personal, a sense of proximity to their idol that you rarely get in the stadiums and sports arenas where she has performed since the eighties.
When Bruce Springsteen started this trend of superstars in theatres with his acclaimed 2017-2018 Broadway residency, all he brought along was a guitar and piano. Madonna's idea of intimacy is a little different, involving a a dozen dancers, another dozen musicians, a 14-piece choral ensemble from Cape Verde and 39 crew members making sure the elaborate sets, dazzling projections and incessant costume changes all ran smoothly. Rather than stripping back her stadium extravaganzas, Madonna has essentially tried to squeeze the stadium into a theatre.
Yet crucially she infused the production with her own eccentric personality, chattering incessantly between songs in bizarre monologues that moved quirkily between ribald humour, political jokes and idealistic proclamations of artistic freedom.
During one odd interlude, she auctioned a Polaroid of herself to charity, admonishing her devoted audience for only coughing up £1,500. "Are you guys all confused by Brexit as it comes to an end?" she asked, before requesting we spare a thought for America where the nightmare continues. "We have a psychopath in the White House."
It didn't always make sense, but the show's slightly anarchic nature only added to the sense of fun. It was like a cross between experimental theatre and showbiz extravaganza, Busby Berkeley meets Ballet Rambert fired up with monster pop tunes. Pop music is supposed to be weird, sexy, silly and exciting and this show was all of that and more.
Madonna has survived so long in this fickle business because she loves what she does, and tonight it showed in her smile. I've been watching her live for four decades, and this may not have been her slickest or most spectacular - but her wacky joy in performance made it the most entertaining Madonna show ever.
To be honest, I was nervous I wouldn't be able to write a review of Madonna's long-awaited Madame X show last night.
Not because she cancelled – again (this has happened ten times so far, due to an unspecified injury, said to be a dodgy knee and hip) – but because the Queen of Pop has built up a reputation for being ridiculously late on stage during this tour.
Not fashionably late, a whole diva TWO HOURS late, forcing fans to dance into the small hours, on a school night.
But last night at London's Palladium, Madonna remembered her manners. And painful hip and knee be damned, she dazzled, the absolute trouper she is.
Yes, she looked sore and stiff at times, yet the next minute she was performing an impressive handstand and writhing athletically on a grand piano lid. At 61, she's still got it. She can dance.
The Madame X tour comes with a difference. She was intent on it being an intimate, and interactive event, and had hence banned all phones.
Everyone was instructed to place their device in a lockable pouch on arrival, which only security could open, as you left or slipped out to designated phone zones.
Although we had been warned, there were wobbly scenes, reminiscent of the daemon splicing scenes from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, as phones were silenced, muzzled and wrestled away. 'But I neeeeed it…'
It did mean, however, that the usual distracting glow of a thousand photo screens being held aloft was absent which made a refreshing change, and Madonna stressed how wonderful it was 'to look into the audience's eyes', as they fretted about missed calls from the babysitter.
The show opened with a motto from the late American novelist James Baldwin: 'Art is here to prove that all safety is an illusion... Artists are here to disturb the peace,' and finishes with police riot shields, attacking dancers under a video montage of a street riot.
All the time, Madonna looked on, clad in a sequin-encrusted Revolutionary war costume, complete with tricorn hat and eye patch. The 1984 pop princess, performing a sassy 'Holiday' on Top Of The Pops, in rubber bangles and leg warmers, seemed a very long way away.
She took the 'immersive, interactive' theatre feel even further, by climbing down into the audience at one point to truly terrify some poor soul in the 'posh seats' and steal a swig of his beer. She also took a Polaroid selfie, which she auctioned, on stage, to raise money for her Raising Malawi charity. It went for £1,500 – around the price of a top ticket.
We all know Madonna has an opinion or two, and isn't shy about sharing them, which means anyone who likes their concerts light on sermons, and heavy on bop-along-old favourites, is going to be disappointed by Madame X.
She takes on everything: gun control, abortion, Donald Trump, sex, religion, family, rape, violence, slavery and Brexit in her lyrics and soliloquies between songs. Some golden oldies made it, however.
There was Vogue, La Isla Bonita and Express Yourself, and Like a Prayer which had the diehard fans delighted. A lot of material came from her Madame X album, of the same name, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing.
It's said to be one of her best to date, combining a strange mix of disco, and Portuguese fado music, inspired by her move to Lisbon three years ago, to further her son David Banda's football career.
In fact, the show was very much a family affair: three of her adopted daughters, seven-year-old twins Stella and Estere and 14-year-old Mercy James joined her on stage along with a crowd of women at one point, to chant (disturbingly) 'I'm not your bitch!', after performing Nineties hit, Human Nature.
Later, she performed Frozen while a video of her beautiful, and athletic, 23-year-old daughter dancing played in the background.
Let's hope her medical woes have been laid to rest: she still has 14 gigs to get through in the capital. Somehow, I think she'll do it.
"She is here, isn't she Will?", asked a worried looking man at the London Palladium at about 20:00 on Wednesday night. "Yes", I said. I didn't actually know for sure, but he looked so anxious I thought a bit of reassurance wouldn't go amiss.
Anyway, the merch counter had just fallen over and there was a rising sense of calamity which didn't need adding to.
Madonna goes deep with her fans. The connection is genuine and mutual. Nobody blames her for cancelling shows due to extreme pain in her knees and hips, people just hope it's not on their night (she has subsequently ruled out shows on 4 and 11 February).
"I feel so guilty," another fan told me. "My mates had tickets for Monday night, which was cancelled and I've just sent a WhatsApp of my seat tonight."
"Where are you sitting?" I asked
"Row U in the stalls," he said
"How much did you pay?"
"£250" he said "Not bad eh? I think it's going to be great."
And it was - 5-star great.
Not because the show was perfect, though. Madonna's movement was visibly stiff, lighting errors left dancers in the dark, and some of her banter fell flat. All of which only added to the "live-ness" of the event, which was more an evening of intimate cabaret than a stadium blockbuster show.
It was perfectly imperfect, like one of those sketchy landscapes by Cezanne where you can see his underdrawings and misplaced lines, making it so much more beautiful and real than Canaletto's soulless precision.
Truth is the point of art, not perfection.
Getting to it sometimes means removing the artifice, or strapping it on. Madonna's schtick has always been the latter.
She's a post-modernist right down to her kinky boots, adopting superficial personas and cultural influences. She is the Cindy Sherman of pop, the chameleon Queen with a debt to the shape-shifting aesthetics of David Bowie.
This time around, though, Madonna has let the mask slip.
There's still a character for her to hide behind (Madame X, a dominatrix type cliche sporting an eye-patch and padded pants), with its usual mix of the sacred and the profane (she is both a prostitute and a nun). But she constantly undermines her own illusion just as Cezanne did with his fidgety, cross-hatched lines.
One minute she is the all-singing, all-dancing Madame X, inhabiting a vividly theatrical world embellished with huge projections. The next she has stepped beyond her own fourth wall to have a chummy chat with the locals. It's improv, kind of. The audience interaction is a pre-conceived element of the show, but her spiel is site-specific, and her responses spontaneous.
The artist was present in every sense.
Sometimes it worked.
Sometimes she went on for a too long, leading to the occasional "get on with it". And sometimes it was awkward: "Does anyone have a spare seat I could sit in?" she asked (scripted).
A chap near the front put his hand up. Madonna gingerly stepped down from the stage for a tete-a-tete. She's fine, he's star-struck. Beer is swigged (scripted). To no avail. His tongue has tied itself into a knot so tight no amount of liquor is going to loosen it. A stilted conversation ensues (unscripted).
Nobody minds. Madonna's doing stand-up. We're in the room. She is with us, of us, not some distant star on a faraway stage performing a risk-free romp through back catalogue favourites with a few numbers from the latest album thrown in to help sales.
The Madame X Tour is an adventurous piece of contemporary theatre, and a match for any of the Tony and Olivier-winning shows currently playing the West End and Broadway.
It starts with a Hitchcockian scene. Madonna is stage right, in profile: seated, visible only as a silhouette behind a translucent curtain. She is typing. Slowly. A gunshot rings out every time she strikes a key, provoking a robotic movement made by a single besuited dancer standing in front of the curtain, stage left.
Text is projected on high as the dancer contorts his body under a hail of literary bullets, most fired decades ago by James Baldwin, one of America's finest post-war writers. His words "Artists are here to disturb the peace" appear as an epigraph.
He is right. Up to a point. Which is about 23:00 for Westminster City Council, according to our celebrated hostess. She told us an iron curtain would be dropped if she went on beyond its stipulated curfew.
The diaphanous fabric lifts, Madonna struts, the stage is set, and the show proper begins with God Control. The audience goes nuts ("I should have done this years ago," says the singer as an aside), as the steps and structures revolve and animate.
Dark Ballet comes next in a show built around her recent Madame X Album. The smattering of old favourites stitched into its fabric have been incorporated so elegantly as to make them feel an essential part of the whole rather than crowd-pleasing add-ons.
And so it is with Human Nature, which follows and resolves in a seated scene that doubles up as a rest for the star and a witty nod for the die-hards towards the famous 1995 video directed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino.
Then comes some "Hello London" repartee before an a cappella version of Express Yourself.
It's good, and it gets better.
A string introduction to Papa Don't Preach segues into a sophisticated rendition of Vogue performed in a striking, angular, black and white design.
Not all the creative decisions are made so astutely. There's an ill-advised, wince-inducing vignette, which sees Madonna launching into a "let's wind back the years" routine involving an upside-down-splits topped-off with toe wiggle. I felt a tweak in my own groin - and not in a good way.
Fortunately for Madame X, and us, such moments are few and far between. This show is designed (and constantly redesigned) around the 61-year-old's physical condition. Dancers help her on and off pianos, chairs and steps. You can sense her frustration at her body's restricted ability, but she can still hit the beats better than most.
Plus, her team of dancers are fantastic. They excel under Megan Lawson's choreographic vision, which appears to riff on a revered contemporary dance cannon including such notables as Pina Bausch's The Rite of Spring, Hofesh Shechter's Sun, and Michael Jackson's moon walk.
The heart and soul of the show is provided by Madonna's newly found love: the evocative sound of the Fado musicians she discovered in her current home city of Lisbon.
That, and the wonderful female Batuque singers from Cape Verde, an African archipelago once colonised by the Portuguese who took an unfavourable view of their traditional music.
Which we all did as a visibly delighted Madonna led her merry band of players out of the auditorium and off into the night (or the physio's bench).
The last time I saw Madonna, she fell down the stairs. Although, more to the point, she got straight up again and performed a dance routine. I myself recently fell down a flight of stairs, and as I lay at the bottom, curled up in a foetal position, swearing like Ant Middleton, the image of Madonna flashed through my mind. It took me all evening to recover, and as I nursed my bruises with an ice pack, cups of tea, two paracetamol and a Valium, I remembered Madonna at the Brit Awards in 2015. After her fall she was back onstage within seconds, confirming what we all know about her: that she is NAILS. It's both her strength and her weakness.
I'm here to see her tonight at the Palladium in central London, an intimate venue for such a superstar, and this evening is another recovery on her part: a total of ten earlier shows on this tour had to be cancelled, including the first London date. She has injuries apparently, and has been seen in online footage warming up backstage wearing elasticated knee supports. She looks amazing in knee supports, and it makes me wonder why we don't all wear them as fashion items. Perhaps we soon will.
Anyway, full disclosure: there was a time, years ago, when I didn't totally love Madonna. In truth, I think I was jealous of her. She didn't offer me as obvious a role model as my late-Seventies dark-haired punky heroines, and I found her blonde glamour both entrancing and threatening. In the early Eighties she brought sexy back, and sharing the same record label with her was sometimes a dispiriting experience. Her style became the template for female pop stars, and she threw many of us into the shade, making our indie puritanism look dated and, well, puritanical.
I also thought for a while that I didn't love her voice, but in retrospect I think I was just being bitchy. Then I came to my senses and realised what a great instrument it is, able to cut through the densest arrangements, dominate any dance floor, and leap out of your radio; instantly identifiable, triumphant and celebratory. Those are the moods she does best, which is what I meant earlier about her toughness being a weakness as well as a strength. You don't go to Madonna for vulnerability, or confessional songwriting. For someone so open in so many ways, she retains a kind of dignity and privacy as a performer. Onstage, she is MADONNA, and she is all about self-determination, pleasure and defiance.
The defiance has always been there. "Don't" is one of her favourite words. Every ten years or so she explicitly tells us not to tell her what to do. It started back in 1986 with "Papa Don't Preach", a lyric in which a woman literally defies the patriarchy by refusing to be cowed by her father's morality. In 2000 she recorded "Don't Tell Me", with its crystal-clear lyric, "don't tell me to stop", and in 2008 she was still fighting back against those who would have her slow down, singing, in "Give it 2 Me", "don't stop me now, don't need to catch my breath, I can go on and on and on". I soon recognised this defiance in her, and saw that she wielded a sword every bit as powerful as anything brandished by Patti or Poly or Siouxsie.
Tonight, as she appears on the stage, the audience rise as one, giving her a standing ovation that lasts for the full two hours of the show. We sit for a couple of brief moments, but otherwise remain on our feet in her presence, and it seems appropriate. You don't need me to tell you the show is spectacular, what else would it be? Projected images dazzle and challenge, the stage transforms, the costumes keep coming, the dancers don't miss a beat. And nor does Madonna herself. Of course she doesn't. Bitch, she's Madonna. So no, we don't get many of the hits, and yes, we do get most of the new album, which is never what an artist's fans would choose were they to do the choosing. But while Madonna is a great entertainer, she's no craven crowd-pleaser. The job of keeping herself interested is what, I suspect, motivates her. Churning out the old hit singles would make for a very different kind of concert, one that she would have no interest in.
Instead, we get a show that is a kind of art-pop West End musical that reminds me of the films and pop videos made by Derek Jarman: not afraid to be grandiose, or even pretentious, knowing that great pop is strong enough to bear the weight of both those things without collapsing. She has always played with imagery that is religious, or militaristic, full of big bold symbols, harnessing a kind of camp rebelliousness which is serious without being dull.
In her music, she doesn't often offer glimpses of sadness or pain, always seeming more authentic when she's fighting back against that pain, or dancing through it. Though tonight there is one moment of near-vulnerability, when she performs a truly moving version of the song "Frozen". The staging is suddenly dominated by huge, full-screen images of her daughter, while Madonna is picked out by a spotlight mid-stage, so that she seems to be held aloft, cradled by her dancing daughter. They are entwined, and it's beautiful, and a moment of rare simplicity.
She ends the show with "Like a Prayer" and we all sing as if we were in church, as if we were true believers, which I guess we are. She is still fighting back against those who would stand in her way. On the track "Future", from her current album Madame X, she sings, "don't tell me to stop 'cause you said so". The message is loud and clear, and every inch of her proclaims, usually in the face of criticism from men, "DON'T TELL ME WHAT TO DO". I am sure some doctor somewhere is currently telling her to tone the show down, go easy on her knees, not exacerbate any joint issues, and I think "well good luck with that, doc", as I watch her, once again, doing everything the male pop stars do, but backwards and in heels. And better.
Madonna wants us to wake up. Actually, she wants us to do a lot of things. Come with her to the future. Protect her from her critics. Know that she agrees that America is in turmoil and the finger is pointed at the "psychopath in the White House". But, above all, remember that she is a provocateur and "freedom fighter" – an artist who is, in the words of James Baldwin, which are fired like gunshots on the screen to open the show, "here to disturb the peace". And we are in her maverick world now, an eyeball-twisting audiovisual assault of cello-playing nuns and cartwheeling soldiers in gas masks, like The Two Popes meets Hamilton.
Anticipation fizzes around the London Palladium tonight, because this is the debut of the London leg of intimate shows – she cancelled her first earlier in the week due to a knee injury. It would have been hard to play her steely, eye-patched spy at half tilt: there are handstands, a bit where she slides down a grand piano like Roxie Hart and, of course, plenty of straddling her exceptional dancers. Like her 2019 album, she appears as Madame X, a bondage secret agent who threads various nods to her career through her new globetrotting mish-mash of trap, Latin-pop and Afro-Lusophone folk.
This is a show of two halves: the first is an aggressive blast of political messaging and theatre noir that is also a comment – and Madonna doesn't do subtle – on being under attack herself. She opens with her disco ode to police violence, "God Control", dressed in a glittering revolutionary outfit; then she's on the run, pushed and shoved between her cast like a pantomime villain during new song "I Don't Search I Find", as phrases like "f*** off" flash overhead. There is more action than a Marvel movie: comic interludes, blowjob innuendos and a bizarre charity auction – during which she proclaims that "Madame X is also a saint" and a ballsy fan gets onstage to try and hand her £1,000 cash (she quips that she'll have to fire her security).
"Vogue", meanwhile, feels fairly low impact, but other flashbacks are a reminder of her sustained influence on pop culture. At one point, her dancers and three young daughters – Mercy, Stelle and Esthere, dressed in slick Nineties fashion (now fashionable once again) – gather beside her to chorus, "I'm not your bitch" after a rendition of "Express Yourself". You could say that it's a cheap shot to bring her family into it, but when she sings her earth mother banger "Frozen" as her other daughter, Lourdes, dances on a projection screen around her, it's genuinely moving.
The second half of the Madame X Experience allows for some self-discovery. Madonna has long been a cultural tourist but it's actually this part, dedicated to the music she's discovered while living in Lisbon, that feels less forced. Here, she drops the wisecracking dominatrix routine and gives a real sense of her respect for the music, as she talks about the beauty of fado. There's a laidback club scene where she sings "Crazy" without the jarring live AutoTune, while men rub her thighs as she pulls them away (seeming a little vulnerable while asserting her desirability). And she brings out the Orquestra Batukadeiras, from former Portuguese colony Cape Verde, for a rousing display of female solidarity on "Batuka".
It's not long before the slow clap of burning rainforest footage and flashes of "warning" are back (yes, we get it, the world has gone to s***!), as Madonna sings her reggae track "Future" while seated at the keys. The finale of "Like A Prayer", though, seems to suggest emancipation – from the world, or perhaps from herself. She has disturbed the peace alright. This pacey onslaught is a bit like being trapped inside a panic attack. But when she's not trying to keep up with her own legacy, the show is warm and brilliant.
The singing superstar — who at 61 has faced a string of health battles — made her debut at the London Palladium, albeit two days later than planned.
But she was on immaculate form ahead of 13 further dates over the next three weeks.
Whether it be as a singer, a comedian or an actress, she plays every role with ease — with not a sign of those crippling injuries.
Turning to the crowd, she declared deadpan: "When I moved here, everyone accused me of having a British accent and I didn't know what they were talking about. Until I heard back old interviews. And I was horrified."
There is much love for her dark humour and her withering put-downs of the fans who have paid hundreds of pounds to see her on this intimate tour.
And the show itself is less of a pop concert and more of an abstract West End musical.
Despite debilitating hip and knee injuries which have plagued her since the tour kicked off in New York in September, Madonna put on one of the most extraordinarily physical and emotional concerts in music history.
She flitted from talk of shootings to dirty jokes, from army deaths to disco classics, all within the spectacular two-hour, ten-minute production.
There was no interval but she managed eight different outfits, three hairstyles and a compelling performance throughout.
The superstar's tour has proved four months of agonising turmoil but has the production value which wouldn't be spent by most artists even playing stadiums.
Her most ambitious project to date, the experience was largely based off her Madame X album, which reached No2 here last year.
And despite powerful messages and an eclectic mix of sounds on the record, it was still her timeless classics which proved to be a magical experience to witness at such close proximity in the 2,286-capacity venue.
Vogue, one of the most iconic pop songs of the 20th century, was delivered in front of eight Madonna impersonators.
Penultimate tune Like A Prayer was as much of a religious experience as it has ever been — with Madonna cloaked in a black outfit covered in crosses.
At other times the stage was transformed into a Portuguese home and later a funeral procession for a fallen American soldier.
On her Rebel Heart tour in the UK in 2015, Madonna had pole dancing nuns, yet here the nuns were a string trio.
But as a perfect combo, the hard-hitting messages of violence and hatred were offset by jokes with the crowd — who had been forbidden from taking their mobile phones inside for a tech-free show.
"Aren't you having little panic attacks?" she asked after they handed over their phones to be put in lockable pouches.
"I kind of am. And then I remember, I made the rules."
Those rules mean she auctions off a Polaroid picture of herself taken on stage that night for £1,500, to be donated to her Raising Malawi charity.
While trying to get the price up, she joked to fans on the front row: "£1,000, is that it? I think your seats cost more than that.
"Oh my God it's hard making a dollar around here. Are you all confused because of Brexit?"
One man was so desperate to offer his cash that he jumped up on stage, prompting Madge to say her security would be "sacked".
At another point she sat in the crowd, chatting with a fan and swigging his beer — only to insist he hurried up because of the "iron curtain" of the 11pm curfew.
Her seven-year-old twins Estere and Stella, as well as Mercy, 14, made a brief appearance early on but were well gone by the time the show ended at 11.05pm, only five minutes late. The extreme physicality on stage has clearly taken its toll on Madonna though.
During Human Nature she performed a handstand, after opening her legs wide, grabbing her crotch and bending over.
On Crazy she rolled her hips while standing on top of a piano, batting off the wandering hands of male dancers.
This tour has been a long-time coming and plenty has been said about the cost of the tickets and the state of Madonna's music after almost four decades.
But on stage last night she was every bit the true pop superstar.
"I just want to say how happy I am to have made it this far, how could I not have done this show in London?" she said. Absolutely.
Madonna has resumed her Madame X world tour in London, after cancelling dates in Portugal and the UK due to injury.
The star took to the stage wearing knee supports but otherwise refused to make concessions to the "indescribable" pain she has recently been experiencing.
She performed high kicks, yoga poses and even the splits during a highly-polished, two-and-a-half-hour show.
And she told fans she was "happy to have made it" to the Palladium after scrapping her first UK show on Monday.
"How could I not do a show in London?" she added.
The Palladium seats just 2,286 people - which made Wednesday night's show Madonna's smallest-ever full-length concert in the UK; and her first time on the West End since appearing in David Williamson's Up for Grabs in 2002.
It provided a chance, she said, for a more "intimate and thrilling" artistic experience.
As a result, the audience were required to store mobile phones in sealed pouches as "an intervention for us all". However, Madonna admitted that even she was getting anxious without a phone nearby.
"I'm having little panic attacks," she joked. "I'm like, 'Why is no-one taking my picture?'"
But the gambit worked: Freed from distractions, the audience gave the concert their undiluted attention; while Madonna seemed to relax and have fun without a phalanx of tiny cameras recording her every move.
At one point, she slipped into a British accent and recalled how she'd been ridiculed for developing similarly plummy vowels during her marriage to Guy Ritchie.
"I didn't know what anyone was talking about until I heard old interviews of myself," she said. "And then I was horrified and flabbergasted. Why did you let me do that to myself? I'm from Michigan!"
"It's all Guy Ritchie's fault," she decided. "He made me to it." (Perhaps because of the theatre setting, the crowd booed her ex like a pantomime villain).
The off-the-cuff banter made Madonna, who's often been perceived as imperious and stand-offish, seem refreshingly accessible. But that looseness was often at odds with the heavily-conceptualised musical segments.
The heart of the show had to do with Madonna's life in Lisbon, where she moved in 2017 to support her son David's aspirations as a footballer ("yes, I'm a soccer mom," she accepted).
Uprooting the family wasn't easy, she said, and she struggled with loneliness until David gave her an ultimatum: "You're pathetic, you're chubby and you need some friends."
In Madonna's retelling, she found friendship and sustenance in Portugal's fado clubs, where "I took my loneliness and turned it into something good".
Traditional music percolated the show: Madonna rebuilt Isla Bonita in a fado style and covered Isabel De Oliveira's Fado Pechincha. During Batuka, she introduced the Orquestra Batukadeiras - a group of female hand-drummers from Cape Verde - one of whom danced with a bottle of rum balanced delicately on her head.
But Madonna being Madonna, there were also dancers in gas masks, nuns playing cellos, cameos from her children (NB: very cute) and urgent messages about school shootings and climate change.
Thematically, it was supposedly tied together by the character of Madame X, a secret agent / prisoner / cabaret singer / cha cha instructor / equestrian / prostitute - but the concept never quite gelled.
Instead, music was the unifying force - from the feel-good throwbacks of Vogue and Like A Prayer to more recent tracks like the gospel-infused Come Alive and I Don't Search I Find, which updates the deep house grooves of the Erotica era.
Fans attending the star's 13 remaining London shows will be pleased to learn she arrived on stage within 20 minutes of the advertised starting time, in contrast to the US leg of the tour, where audiences were often kept waiting for several hours.
"I've been warned by Westminster council," she confessed, adding that an "iron curtain" would fall over the production if she broke an 11pm curfew.
However, there will be lingering fears over the star's health, and the fate of future shows.
So far, 10 of the tour's 93 dates have been called off after the star was ordered to "step back" from performing by doctors.
"I have injuries that have plagued me since the beginning of the tour but I must always listen to my body and put my health first," she wrote on Instagram over the weekend, after cancelling the opening date of her residency at the Palladium.
Although she seemed in good spirits on Wednesday night's show, Madonna did admit things were "not good in the knee and the hips".
But she also made light of the injuries, after asking for a chair to be brought on stage during one of her monologues.
"Normally, I kneel for about 20 minutes here," she said, a gleam entering her eye.
"I've been told I'm very good at it."
On January 14, the "Queen of Pop" Madonna performed in Lisbon as part of the first stop of her "Madame X" European Tour.
She performed at the Lisbon Coliseum in Portugal, which has a seating capacity of nearly 4,300 people. Madonna expressed her gratitude to her fans for showing up in Lisbon to support her. "It's so nice to have Madame X back where she belongs," she tweeted.
In a tweet to her followers and fans, Madonna announced her return to Lisbon, which she described as a full circle moment and "the place it all began."
She will be playing in Portugal until January 23, and then she is headed to The London Palladium in London, where she will be performing until Sunday, February 16.
As she rung in the New Year "2020," she revealed that she is ready for "another decade of dreams."