Music & Lyrics: Benny Andersson & Bjorn Ulvaeus
Book: Catherine Johnson
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Reviewer: Clare White
There can be nothing more guaranteed to warm up a bleak February night in Wolverhampton than an injection of Greek sunshine by way of Mamma Mia!, the ultimate feel-good musical. Based on the music of Swedish super-group ABBA, the award-winning show has been seen by over 60 million people all over the world since its West End premiere in 1999.
Set on an idyllic Greek island, young bride-to-be Sophie is desperate for her father to walk her down the aisle on her wedding day, however his identity is a mystery. After finding her mother Donna’s diary from 20 years ago, Sophie discovers her father could be one of three men, and skimming over the fact her Mum was clearly a little promiscuous, she secretly invites all three to her wedding, believing that when she sees them, she’ll know straight away who’s the daddy, as it were. What could go wrong? Meanwhile, Donna, former wild child and lead singer of girl group The Dynamos, is exhausted and beaten down by life, trying to organise her daughter’s wedding while running the island’s dilapidated B&B, until her two best friends and former band members arrive for the wedding and help their friend get her sparkle back.
A cynic might dismiss it as cheesy, implausible jukebox fluff – but that same cynic would undoubtedly be toe-tapping all the way through. It’s impossible not to succumb to the charms of this joyful musical, brimming with arguably some of the best pop songs ever written, courtesy of ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. Featuring Winner Takes It All, Dancing Queen, Super Trooper, Dancing Queen, Voulez-Vous – their back catalogue of hits is used to good effect and feel naturally woven in to the narrative. Phyllida Lloyd’s polished production is energetic and fun, while at the same time making space for some lovely poignant moments. ABBA’s music lends itself so well to this, with Gimme Gimme Gimme giving dynamic disco vibes at Sophie’s hen party, and then Slipping through My Fingers slowing the pace for a touching, reflective moment between Donna and Sophie on the morning of the wedding.
The multi-functional sets are simple and effective, creating the ambience of a Greek island in the sun. Anthony Van Laast’s vibrant choreography is a real highlight, and the large ensemble really ignite in energetic set pieces for Money Money Money and Under Attack.
Lucy May Barker is really likeable as Sophie and has a pure, sweet voice. She has good chemistry with Helen Hobson, who plays Donna. Hobson herself is a fine actress, but at times struggles vocally to give the songs the attack they require. Similarly, Phillip Ryan is suitably charismatic as Sophie’s chiselled fiancé, by vocally doesn’t quite hit the mark. It is always going to be difficult to replicate the resonance of these songs, written originally for the unique harmonies of ABBA’s Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. While the cast makes a successful go of it overall, a spark is lacking in some of the solos.
While the story is all about strong women, the three ‘fathers’ Bill (Christopher Hollis), Harry (Jamie Hogarth) and Sam (Jon Boydon) are good fun and play their somewhat limited parts well. And thankfully, Boydon erases the painful memory of Pierce Brosnan’s ‘singing’ in the same role in 2008’s film adaptation.
While on the subject of the film, (which starred Meryl Streep and is a bit like Marmite), the stage version works so much better on many levels, most noticeably on its comedic value. There are some real laugh-out-loud moments, often thanks to Emma Clifford and understudy Rebecca Seale as Donna’s partners in crime Tanya and Rosie. The duo’s timing and physicality is spot on, leading to hilarious set pieces, such as when three-times married cougar Tanya runs rings around young admirer Pepper, played by the impressively athletic Louis Stockil, in Does Your Mother Know That You’re Out.
At its heart, this is a cross-generational story about family, friendship and love, showing the experiences of Sophie and her friends – the young, naïve free-spirits who don’t worry about consequence, versus the more mature generation; Donna, Tanya, Rosie and Sophie’s ‘dads’, who have all been bruised by love but deep down still want their happy ever after. A charming tale, coupled with a superb soundtrack of familiar hits results in an ultimate crowd-pleaser. The audience needed little encouragement to get to its feet and release inner Dancing Queens for a glittering encore. Mamma Mia is uplifting, energetic, heart-warming fun.
Runs until 24 February 2018 and on tour | Image: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg