Since the Abba musical first opened on 6 April 1999, some 19 Mamma Mia! stage productions have been mounted around the world and it’s become a celluloid success care of Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth. If nothing else, returning to the original London production now reminds me just how poor that big-budget Hollywood version is by comparison with its stage progenitor – which is so much naughtier, fresher, funnier and all-round better.
The tenth birthday cast boasts one of the most picture-perfect mother-daughter pairings in Linzi Hateley and Katie Brayben as Donna and Sophie, both blonde-bobbed, bolshy and full of infectious energy. Elsewhere, Joanna Monro and a startlingly well-preserved Jane Gurnett are dynamite comic sidekicks, and Paul Ryan, as one of Sophie’s three possible dads, and Ben Heathcote, as one of the groom’s mischievous friends, make the strongest marks amongst the male characters.
But the show remains the name of the game, thanks to Catherine Johnson’s witty book, Phyllida Lloyd’s fast-paced direction, Anthony Van Laast’s still-sharp choreography – and, last but not least, of course, those endless Abba hits. Thank you for that music, indeed.
Small wonder that Judy Craymer and the production team have made so much money, money, money over the years. Mamma Mia! has rightly earned and justly deserves its blockbuster status. Long may it reign as the West End’s Dancing Queen.
Voulez-vous … again? Go on, you know you do.
- Terri Paddock
Note: The following FIVE-STAR review dates from June 2004 when this production first moved to the West End's Prince of Wales Theatre. “Mamma Mia! Here we go again!
My, my, how can we resist it?
Oh, since the day it started,
We’ve been so broken hearted:
No, no, nothing’s quite as good in town."
Never mind that none of the pop musicals that have inevitably followed Mamma Mia! into the West End have come anywhere near to matching its effortless ease and exhilarating high spirits. This is a musical with heart and, unlike such cynical imitators as We Will Rock You and Tonight's the Night, there’s real art and craft, too.
But the good news is Mamma Mia! has just got even better. That’s thanks in part to its newly reopened home, the Prince of Wales which, after a dazzling refit that’s cost over £7m (See News, 20 May 2004), is a show in and of itself (even if some of the finer details weren’t quite finished by press night yet). With its wide yet intimate two-level auditorium, no one’s too far from the stage, the new seating is positively luxurious and the colour scheme of burnished reds warm and inviting. The generously proportioned bars – none of your cramped West End cubby-holes here – are the epitome of style and grace.
More importantly, the show has been sparklingly recreated in its spanking new environment. Now, in a theatrical configuration and comfort that recalls its Broadway home (the likewise lavishly refurbished Winter Garden Theatre, but with better legroom here), Mamma Mia! remains as fresh and exhilarating as it was when it first opened at London’s Prince Edward Theatre five years ago.
While Abba’s repertoire is arguably second only to the Beatles in terms of output and the affection it’s held in, Mamma Mia! is far more than just a catalogue compilation show. Simultaneously celebrating youth and early middle age and touching on the universality of parental relationships, Catherine Johnson’s book very skilfully addresses a wide constituency of Abba fans who see it. It also anchors the show with a witty and involving script as it follows a 20-year-old girl trying to find out who her father is on the eve of her wedding, after she invites the three men she identifies in a old diary of her unmarried mum as possible candidates to attend it.
The songs, of course, provide their own trip down memory lane that isn’t just nostalgic but genuinely comments on the action, too. Abba provided the soundtrack to a generation, but like the best pop, their songs have been re-generated as timeless. And, as delivered with firebrand passion and attack by a cast led by the vibrant and sassy Vivien Parry as mum Donna, Phyllida Lloyd’s production is packed with talent.
In a superb ensemble, there are also terrific contributions from the tall and brassy Kim Ismay and the round and funny Lara Mulcahy as Donna’s best friends and former singing colleagues; the trio of Donna’s former suitors made up of Simon Slater, Robert Hands and Dale Rapley; and Alexandra Jay as daughter Sophie and Dean Stobbart as her husband-to-be.
Thank you for the music, goes one of Abba’s songs featured in the show, to which the only possible response can be, Thank you for the musical!
- Mark Shenton
Note: The following review dates from April 1999 and this production's original opening at the West End's Prince Edward Theatre.
You don't have to be a big fan of 1970s supergroup Abba to enjoy this new musical. For, contrary to some popular misconceptions, Mamma Mia is not about the Swedish foursome nor is it a nostalgic retrospective on the decade that, as the saying goes, taste forgot. The reality is more Four Weddings and a Funeral meets Shirley Valentine with a toe-tapping disco beat.
Set in the present on a tiny Greek island, 20-year-old Sophie (Lisa Stokke), the daughter of English ex-pat and former girl power lead singer Donna (Siobhan McCarthy), is about to be married. Sophie's white-wedding dream is for her father to walk her down the aisle. The problem is that neither Sophie nor her mother knows just exactly who said father is. By sneaking a peek at her mother's diary from her fancy-free days, Sophie narrows it down to three men and invites them all to the big day, thinking that instinctively she'll know who's lent her her genes.
The plot is as skimpy as some of the bikinis sported by the lithe young women of the chorus, but ingenuous nonetheless. Catherine Johnson's book manages to tailor a reasonably coherent story around Abba's collection of greatest hits. No fewer than 22 songs (minus the Eurovision winning “Waterloo” which is conspicuous by its absence) are incorporated into the action, in often quite surprising ways. “Chiquitita”, for instance, is sung to Donna by her old band members as she weeps over the re-appearance of her past lovers while potential-dad Sam (Hilton McRae) explains the complications of divorce to Sophie with “Knowing Me, Knowing You”.
The biggest strength of Johnson's script, as rendered by director Phyllida Lloyd, is that it doesn't take itself too seriously and caters instead to the audience's obvious desire to guess just how and when the next classic song will surface. The performers join in on the game quite happily and appear to have great fun with the music and with Anthony Van Laast's kitsch choreography, which incorporates plenty of crooning into hairdryers, hairbrushes and snorkels.
Of the performers, McCarthy is strong-voiced and assured as the aging but still boisterous and beautiful Donna, and her sidekick Dynamos, butterball Jenny Galloway and Patsy Stone-lookalike Louise Plowright, provide plenty of laughs. The men fare less well with McRae, in particular, proving incapable of carrying his weight musically. Of the younger generation, Stokke is bright and bushy-tailed but the rest make little impact - which, to be fair, is as much a product of the script as anything.
All in all, though, the most memorable part of the evening is the score. Who knew that these dance floor favourites would adapt so well to the stage. But oh - they do, they do, they do, they do, they do. Go ahead - I'm sorry I can t help myself - take a chance on it.
- Terri Paddock