40 years ago on the 6th April 1974, four clean-cut Swedish singers went to Brighton, performed a song about a Napoleonic battle and changed the world of pop music forever. Fast forward to April 1999 and the music of Abba (for it is they) made its way to London’s West End with the opening of Mamma Mia! at the Prince Edward Theatre. 15 years later, the show is well into its teenage years and thriving at the Novello.
OK, I do have to confess here. I love Abba’s music and have seen the movie version of Mamma Mia many, many times. In fact, I was worried that as with other musicals that have transferred to film, going back to the original stage show was going to be a disappointment. How wrong I was.
One of the real strengths of Mamma Mia! is that it is not a traditional ‘juke-box’ musical. Instead of taking a load of songs from a particular group or era, the original creative team wrote a complete story and worked out where the songs fitted and added value or emphasis to the narrative. This means that there is a reason for each song and none of them sound as if they have been shoe-horned in to fill time or just to please the fans.
Following the overture, a wonderful musical montage of Abba melodies, the curtain raises on the fairly minimal but extremely flexible set – a couple of walls with windows and doors – that glide around the stage and take up new configurations to switch scenes and take us around Donna’s Taverna on the Greek island of Kalokairi.
The basic story concerns Donna’s daughter, Sophie, on the eve of her wedding to young Sky, who wants her dad to give her away. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know who he is and so, after reading her mother’s diary and realising that there are three potential candidates for the job, she invites them all. As well as the ‘Dads’ – Sam, Bill and Harry – Donna’s two best friends Rosie and Tanya are also guests. Now I have to say that these two are one of the best comedic double acts I have ever seen. In stature rather like Laurel and Hardy, it was their timing and playing off each other that worked so well and had the audience in stitches in most of their scenes together.
The action follows the arrival of the ‘Dads’ and friends and preparations for the wedding in a style that is pretty much a cross between a Greek Tragedy and a Whitehall Farce. The large cast really throw themselves into the show, whether it is singing off-stage as a kind of Greek Chorus or the highly energetic big production numbers. Unusually for a musical, the main male characters are fairly secondary to the highly empowered women. The ‘Dads’ all have great solo spots and flesh out their characters beautifully but at the end of the day this is a musical where the ladies really are in charge. The show-stopping “Super Trooper” sung by Donna, Rosie and Tanya, in the tightest ‘70s outfits you will ever see – until the finale – is truly amazing, and Donna’s powerful rendition of “the Winner Takes it All” was really emotional. I do have a minor criticism here I’m afraid. Dianne Pilkington playing Donna actually looks too young to have a 20-year-old daughter.
So, at the end of 2 hours what can I tell you? Forget the movie, this is actually so much better. A show that is suitable for all ages with the timeless music of Abba, a wonderfully energetic, young, fit and attractive cast and a lovely story which sticks to many of the traditions of musicals and yet isn’t afraid to break them as well.
An evening of fun and campness that had the whole audience up and dancing by the end, and when Donna asked “do you want one more?” the answer was a resounding “YES” There is only one way to properly end this review, and I know it’s really cheesy but Benny, Bjorn, Anni-frid and Agnetha – Thank You For The Music!
Review by Terry Eastham
Read more reviews by Terry Eastham
Book Mamma Mia! musical tickets for the Novello Theatre in London’s West End.
5 Aldwych, London, WC2B 4LD
Evenings: Monday to Saturday 7.45pm
Matinees: Thursday and Saturday 3.00pm
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes
Age Restrictions: Suitable for ages 5 and over.