Book: Catherine Johnson
Music and Lyrics: Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
For all of her 20 years, Sophie has lived with her mother, Donna, in Donna’s taverna on a Greek island. And up to now, that’s been enough for Sophie: Donna doesn’t talk much about the time before Sophie’s birth. But then, as Sophie prepares to marry her sweetheart she finds her mother’s diaries from 21 years ago anddiscovers that there are three men who could possibly be her father. Wanting to know more about herself and her heritage, she secretly invites them all to the wedding under Donna’s name. All three accept and arrive on the island. There starts a journey none will forget as Sophie tries to uncover the truth and buried secrets are revealed.
Mamma Mia! may not be the first jukebox musical, but it is arguably the most successful having run in the West End since 1999 and is in the top ten longest-running Broadway musicals. Its success can be firmly placed on the music of Abba that is used: throughout the 1970s and early 1980’s, Abba dominated the charts – indeed, it could be argued that their brand of pop was pretty much perfect for the times, with hummable tunes and lyrics that typically told self-contained stories. The theatricality of much of their back catalogue makes it especially well-suited to use in such a show.
As the lights dim, musical director Carlton Edwards and the band provide an ear-splitting statement of intent as they play a medley of Abba hits which soon has the audience members swaying and tapping their feet. Phyllida Lloyd’s direction ensures that, before the interval at least, the show doesn’t take itself too seriously, metaphorically winking at the audience at times, with some brilliant comedic moments and memorable physical comedy: the attempt by Sky’s friend and taverna employee, Pepper (James Willoughby Moore) to woo Donna’s man-eater friend, Tanya (Helen Anker) is especially memorable, as is the bachelor party, complete with an ensemble dancing in wetsuits, snorkels and flippers. After the interval, however, the mood is more introspective as the three potential dads gradually realise just why they’ve been invited and try to step up, before a whirlwind dénouement.
Dominating the stage whenever she is present is newcomer Jena Pandya’s Sophie. Her sense of joy is infectious, and one feels the production could save on its lighting bill so much does her smile light up the stage. And what a voice! Pure and powerful, she hits the various moods perfectly, producing a soulful note or full rock belt when needed. Truly a terrific performance. Sara Poyzer brings out Donna’s vulnerabilities well as we see her supporting her daughter in an endeavour she does not fully understand, having been forced to be self-reliant for so long. She too has a massive voice – albeit initially affected by sound balance issues at this performance. Her rendition of Slipping Through My Fingers with Sophie is especially poignant and moving, while The Winner Takes It All is quite electrifying, leaving the enthusiastic audience silent with anticipation.
The three dads – Sam (Harry Carmichael), Bill (Phil Corbitt) and Harry (Daniel Crowder) all bring their own vulnerabilities to the show, with each showcasing impressive singing skills during the performance. Donna’s long-time friends, Tanya and Rosie (Nicky Swift) provide plenty of humour through their physicality.
Overall, Mamma Mia! is a triumph and great fun, but it’s not without flaws. The familiar need of a jukebox musical to get in as many hits as possible means that some supporting roles appear to exist solely to facilitate a song’s inclusion and so these characters, unlike those of the principals, remain only roughly sketched: this also makes Catherine Johnson’s book appear a bit disjointed times. However, these are minor criticisms of a self-assured show that provides hit after hit, performed brilliantly by an energetic cast, together with some truly touching moments that creep up on you. It’s no surprise that the encore has the audience standing, clapping and dancing in the seats.
Runs Until 14 May 2022 and on tour