I’m old enough to remember when the first “B” of “ABBA” got reversed; it infuriated the priggish little language purist in me because I thought it would confuse young people learning how to write their letters. Decades later I can now look at it as their trademark©, rather than their name, and read into it a visual interpretation of four people, two couples, each designated by their own initial, the middle two with their backs to each other, as if they were being driven apart by a magnetic force that would inexorably lead to their downfall. Or it could just be a pretty pattern.
It was back in 2005 that Mrs Chrisparkle and I first succumbed to the charms of Mamma Mia. It had already been around for ages – it actually opened in 1999 – but when we finally got around to seeing it, we loved it. Thirteen years is a decent interval to revisit an old favourite, so we were looking forward to dipping our toes back in the theatrical waters of that Greek isle, where every musical sentiment has been distilled through Stockholm’s greatest Pop machine, to create a perfect show tune every time.
It’s easy to scoff at Abba, but they produced memorable songs of extraordinary quality and it’s a joy to hear them on stage. I wouldn’t rank them as highly as The Beatles, of course, but they had a similar ability to convey all sorts of moods. For every Super Trouper there’s a Winner Takes It All. For every Ring Ring, there’s an S.O.S. I remember being at school in 1976 and overhearing a conversation between two of the rougher and tougher older geezer boys who could intimidate you with one brief stare. It went something like: “What music you into?” “Dancing Queen by Abba. Have you heard the production on that single, it’s ****ing amazing….” “Oh yeah, you’re right, it’s ****ing brilliant.”
One of the great achievements of this show is to dovetail those songs into a credible narrative. It’s a finer piece of construction than anything you’d get at IKEA. I’m sure you know the story, but, in a Swedish meatball: Sophie is getting married to her boyfriend Sky (I presume someone on the creative team was a fan of Guys and Dolls) and wants her father to give her away. Trouble is, there were three guys who slept with her tearaway mum around the time of her conception, and she doesn’t know which of them is the original owner of the sperm responsible. So, unbeknownst to her mum Donna, she invites them all to her wedding, thinking she’d instinctively discover who’s the daddy. But it’s not as simple as that, and all three candidates start getting fatherly feelings. Nowadays Donna runs a B&B taverna but in those days she used to rip it up in an all-girl group called the Dynamos. Her two partners in musical crime come out for the wedding, thus legitimising the retro latex and platform boots look that forms a not insubstantial part of the show. Do Sophie and Sky realise their true love? Will any of the Dynamos get lucky? And who is the daddy? You’ll have to watch the show to find out.
It occurred to me that, stylistically, the show is now heading into a total retro spiral. The glam rock association with Abba comes from their Eurovision performance in 1974, which is, I suppose, how most people first came into contact with them. But for much of their career their stage and pop video appearance was very homely, very folky. When Donna and the Dynamos belt out Super Trouper they’re dressed like sex kittens from the Planet Zarg, but if you look at the picture of Abba on that album cover, they’re all dressed in formal white suits and the ladies are especially elegant and refined. That album was from 1980, long after glam rock was a thing of the past. When the original stage show of Mamma Mia appeared in 1999, it was already 25 years after Eurovision, so this style and look was already deeply retro. Today we’re another 19 years on – basically two generations have passed and we’re still revelling in that early 70s look. The show allows you to bask in the memory of those halcyon days. We can all get up and dance at the end to Waterloo without any concern for how ridiculous we might look – and then it’s all safely buttoned up and put away; a style that’s never going to hit the High Streets again, but which we all fall for hook line and sinker. It’s a pure nostalgia boost.
In the battle of the sexes, this is a show where the women rule the roost. Three powerful women (the Dynamos) are up against three largely powerless and confused men (the possible fathers). You sense in marriage that the wilful Sophie would make mincemeat out of the hapless Sky. Sophie, her friends and the younger girls are all smart and sassy; Sky and his mates are all numbskull jerks. Much of the choreography is based on women taking the lead, frequently ridiculing the men; the same goes for the costumes. It’s the fully dressed Donna who chastises the swimming trunk-clad Sky, Pepper and Eddie, the latter so much so that his bagpipes droop suggestively. When Sophie changes into her wedding dress, she does so wearing a discreet and tasteful full-length undergarment. When Sky gets changed into his scuba suit he has to strip down to his underpants. It’s maybe no surprise that a good 75% of the audience are female.
I remember from last time how relatively straightforward the staging is – the old Greek taverna, either seen from the outside or from an inside courtyard. The clear blue simplicity of the backdrops suggests sun and sea. You could almost expect to find Shirley Valentine talking to a rock in the corner. This allows the colourfulness of the characters and their costumes to draw our attention – and several of the big set piece scenes make a huge impact. The scene where the guys dance with their big flippers on their feet is genuinely hilarious – it’s a brilliant routine by choreographer Anthony van Laast that makes them look like human versions of cartoon frogs; further evidence that the men are always made to look ridiculous in this show. The Voulez-Vous scene that closes the first act is as dynamic and exciting as anything you could wish to see on the stage, the dancers performing with eye-boggling energy; you go off for your interval drink dripping with feelgood factor. Does Your Mother Know is sung to an impishly humorous dance routine where the sexually optimistic lad Pepper bites off more than he can chew in his dealings with the glamorous cougar Tanya, who puts him in his place. And, of course, the finale involves outlandish costume changes, super fun dance moves and one of the most successful Eurovision winners ever. What’s not to love?
The energetic cast clearly have a whale of a time onstage and that enthusiasm carries on out into the auditorium. Helen Hobson plays Donna with a great combination of world-weary mother and good-time girl who’s not passed it yet. She has a terrific voice for the hi-energy numbers but really milks the pathos out of Winner Takes It All too. This is someone who sure knows how to put on a show. I also really enjoyed the performance of Emma Clifford as Tanya; think W1A’s Anna Rampton but with added joie de vivre. She gives us loads of fun with her sophisticated knowing looks and air of experience. As a fine contrast, Gillian Hardie plays the other Dynamo, Rosie; also loads of fun but with all the sophistication of Jimmie Krankie and the facial expressions of Angela Merkel. Her re-interpretation of Take a Chance on Me is without doubt one of the highlights of the evening.
Jamie Hogarth, Christopher Hollis and Jon Boydon are all very good as the three fathers but the roles are deliberately under-written so there aren’t so many opportunities for them to shine. Louis Stockil brings bags of cockiness to the role of Pepper in a very physically active and comedic performance – I’m sure he’d be a great clown as well as dancer. But maybe the star of the show is Musical Director Richard Weeden who gets the band to knock out superb arrangements of hit after hit for the best part of two and a half hours, never losing the energy or the sheer joy of the music.
It’s on at the Royal and Derngate until February 3rd, and then goes on to Wolverhampton, Sheffield, Hull, Portsmouth, Aylesbury and Manchester. A highly entertaining and energy-packed show that will leave you wanting more. No wonder it’s been such a worldwide smash.
P. S. Everyone knows the Abba songs. Everyone thinks they can sing. It’s fine for you to quietly sing along with the big noisy numbers in this show; no one will hear you, and Valhalla knows there are a lot of them. But really? Singing along to Our Last Summer? Slipping Through My Fingers? Yes, we’re all impressed that you know the words, people in the middle of row H last night. But next time you’re tempted to sing along during the quiet bits in a musical, please remember these wise words, and I mean them most respectfully: Shut the f*** up.
P. P. S. “Mamma Mia” is of course the expletive you utter when they tell you how much the programme costs. I sent Mrs C with a big handful of pound coins, 50p’s and other assorted financial shrapnel scooped from the depth of my pocket to purchase same whilst I organised the G&Ts. She came back with a programme, a 20p coin and a stunned expression. Still, she said, she was very grateful to the merchandise seller for accepting all her coins. So that’s the derivation of Stockholm Syndrome.
Production photos of the 2017 Cast Tour by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg