Abba are one of those pop groups that have divided opinion over the years but, as critical acclaim begins to catch up with the band’s commercial success, the popularity of the juke box musical Mamma Mia over the last two decades on stage and the big screen is testament to the Scandinavian four-piece’s enduring place in the history of popular music.
The latest touring production of Mamma Mia, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, opened in Wolverhampton on Tuesday and the sheer volume of hit tunes that the show packs is a refreshing tonic in these negative times of Brexit uncertainty and global threats to peace.
And if you have to check your cynicism in to the box office as you enter the Grand Theatre, what the heck! By the end of this two-hour extravaganza of pop hits from the 1970s and ‘80s, I’m pretty sure that even the most hardened doom merchant will be left feeling energised and invigorated by this production.
The story revolves around bride-to-be Sophie Sheridan, played by Lucy May Barker, who seeks to discover the identity of her true father by secretly inviting Australian writer Bill Austin (Christopher Hollis), banker Harry Bright (Jamie Hogarth) and architect Sam Carmichael (Jon Boyden), three former boyfriends of her mother Donna Sheridan (Helen Hobson) to the Greek island where her nuptials are about to take place, in the hope that one of the trio will walk down the aisle with her.
This scenario is interwoven with Donna’s invitation to her old travelling friends and former bandmates in Donna and the Dynamos, Tanya (Emma Clifford) and Rosie (Rebecca Seale), for the impending ceremony, prompting Donna to reflect on the passing of time and the carefree innocence of her youth.
With a simple stage set, invoking white stone Greek architecture for the tavern that features in many scenes, production designer Mark Thompson keeps the focus on what has made this musical such a success over the past two decades—the engaging tunes that Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus created for Abba all those years ago.
It isn’t long before the play’s title track gets the audience singing along, with the cast cleverly alluding to the video that accompanied the original single release, shortly followed by Donna and friends belting out ‘Dancing.Queen’ with hair dryers and brushes standing in for microphones.
There were a couple of moments in the musical where the costumes appear to have come straight out of Abba’s extravagant wardrobe, with a reunited Donna and the Dynamos donning stack heels and silver space suits for ‘Super Trouper.’ The visual reminder of the night when this pre-teenage reviewer watched Abba blow away the Eurovision Song Contest on TV in 1974 was one of the show’s highlights.
Anthony Van Laast’s choreography for the show deserves particular recognition, especially during ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (a Man After Midnight),’ and the scenes involving bridegroom Sky (Phillip Ryan) and his friends contained echoes of the dance sequences by the T-Birds in the musical Grease or the Jets and Sharks in West Side Story.
The athletic acrobatics of Pepper (Louis Stockil), one of Donna’s employees, particularly endeared himself to the audience in this production, and his relationship with the cougar-like Tanya during ‘Does Your Mother Know’ was one of the standout moments of the night, with the tone of the original lyrics nicely flipped by the role reversal of the song’s protagonist.
Catherine Johnson’s script succinctly kept the plot moving along, with a healthy dose of double entendre and humour eliciting a few laughs from the audience.
There were moments in the production when tunes seemed to be shoehorned into the plot, which is inevitable in any juke box musical, but Rosie’s plea to Bill for him to ‘Take A Chance On Me’ was pleasingly corny and got the audience rhythmically clapping along to the number.
And once the happy couple walked off into the moonlight at the end of Mamma Mia, there was still time for the cast to end the show in tribute concert style, with reprises of ‘Mamma Mia,’ ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Waterloo’ sending the audience home feeling pretty much glad all over and grinning from ear to ear as confetti cascaded down into the stalls.
Now where’s that copy of Abba’s Greatest Hits?
Mamma Mia at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre (6-24 February). See www.grandtheatre.co.uk
Reviewed by Stephen Taylor
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