Music And Lyrics: Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Stig Anderson
Book: Catherine Johnson
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Choreographer: Anthony Van Laast
Musical Supervisor: Martin Koch
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
Perhaps it was only time that Norwich, spiritual home of Alan Partridge, finally got a visit from musical juggernaut Mamma Mia!, resplendent with a fine refrain of Knowing Me, Knowing You.
18 years ago, when the musical first opened in London, few could have predicted the huge success it would become, spawning international productions, a blockbuster film adaptation and a touring version. It’s that touring version that now comes to Norwich, bringing with it enough feel good fun to light up an entire Ikea warehouse.
Of course, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ songs are among the most successful in pop history, but what sets this jukebox musical apart from its imitators, and there have been many, is the wit and skill in which ABBA’s back catalogue have been shoehorned into a contemporary tale. The tale of a young girl seeking to find her father on the eve of her wedding on an idyllic Greek isle may have plot holes big enough to drive a Volvo through, but it doesn’t matter. Mamma Mia! is a show unashamedly determined to make its audience have a good time, and with 22 of the Swedish Supergroup’s beloved numbers slotted into the score, it’s hard to resist.
What still surprises with this show is that dig beneath the superficial feel-good factor and there is a real emotional heart to this piece, with unrequited love, regret and pathos just an olive throw away. It’s no wonder that ABBA’s most raw, personal and poignant hit, The Winner Takes It All, provides the dramatic pivot to the show.
Director Phyllida Lloyd and Choreographer Anthony Van Laast cleverly balance the spectacle with the storytelling, pulling focus from the large scale to the intimate as required and making full use of Mark Thompson’s simple but adaptable staging.
While the vehicle itself is still sound after 18 years, the current drivers are slightly underplayed, with some strained vocal performances struggling to cope with the deceptively simple but musically challenging songs. Vocals aren’t enhanced by a somewhat muddy sound mix that overamplifies the band while sacrificing lyric clarity.
Helen Hobson’s Donna, the single mother facing the prospect of her daughter leaving the family taverna, is perhaps a softer portrayal than some that have gone before, but it’s a sympathetic reading that culminates a gut-wrenching version of the aforementioned The Winner Takes It All. As the three suitors from Donna’s past, Jamie Hogarth, Christopher Hollis and Alex Bourne work well together but all three struggle at times vocally at the higher end of the register.
Though some of the individual vocals may suffer, the sheer energy of the performance carries them through, the slight rough edges giving a sense of reality in an otherwise over the top production featuring such delights as the buff male ensemble tap dancing in diving gear and flippers.
As the UK’s love affair with all things Scandi shows no sign of abating, this polar opposite of Nordic Noir provides some much-needed escapism on a cold, gloomy evening. By the time the platform boots and sparkly spandex jumpsuits emerge for the encore it would be only the coldest of soul that can resist jumping to their feet and dancing along.
Runs until 25 March 2017 and continues to tour | Image: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg