Mamma Mia! at Harewood House – review

The hit musical heads outdoors for the first time!

Sara Poyzer, Lucy May Barker and the outdoor Mamma Mia! venue
Sara Poyzer, Lucy May Barker and the outdoor Mamma Mia! venue
© Brinkhoff Moegenburg / Gavin Nugent

What can you add to a show that has played in the West End pretty much constantly since 1999, smashed attendance records internationally and spawned two major movies? The hint is there in the tag line employed at Harewood House: "Mamma Mia! Under the Stars". Well, the stars weren't much in evidence on Press Night, but the first outdoor production of the hit musical had its own unique atmosphere, particularly in the second half when darkness fell, lights twinkled around the audience area and the double whammy of the viewing experience really hit home, with atmospheric lighting patterns on the stage and a more realistic feel to the close-ups on the side screens.

But, apart from the setting, originality is not the issue here. Not only do the splendidly glossy programme and the pre-show video presentation emphasise the history and continuity of the show, but the pull-out section referring to Harewood House gives pride of place to the original director (Phyllida Lloyd) and choreographer (Anthony van Laast). So the current team are in the business of re-creating, not originating, and directors Paul Garrington and Steven Paling and choreographer Nichola Treherne, all veterans of various Mamma Mia! productions, make sure the show comes up with all the necessary energy, slickness and precision.

Mamma Mia!, in common with many musicals and half the operas in existence, has one of those plots that read as convoluted and absurd, but somehow make sense on stage. To simplify, Donna Sheridan, lead singer of Donna and the Dynamos, long ago gave up touring to run a tavern on a Greek island. Her 20-year-old daughter Sophie is about to get married and invites to the wedding the three men who might be her father, back in the liberated days of Donna and the Dynamos. Donna meanwhile invites her old bandmates – then just add a liberal sprinkling of sentiment and comedy and serve warm with two dozen ABBA songs. And that's the great skill of Catherine Johnson's book. Recognising the drama in Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson's songs, she consistently uses them to advance plot or explain character.

Sara Poyzer (Donna) and Lucy May Barker (Sophie) are well matched as mother and daughter, Poyzer assertively in control amid bursts of hysterics and getting the full value out of songs such as The Winner Takes it All, Barker emotionally upfront and totally committed, even if a touch strident. As Donna's bandmates Helen Anker's coolly stylish Tanya contrasts nicely with Nicky Swift's down to earth Rosie – and Swift's pursuit of Phil Corbitt's assertively independent Bill Austin in Take a Chance on Me is a gem. Richard Standing (Sam) and Daniel Crowder (Harry) complete an amiable trio of prospective dads, with Standing's understated take on the emotional developments of act two particularly effective.

An impressively numerous ensemble sings and swings with such vitality that it's easy to forgive the mugging and the sophomoric humour, a keyboard-dominated seven-piece under Carlton Edwards provides a dynamic backing and Mamma Mia! delivers as it's supposed to, under the stars at Harewood House until August 30th and later on tour.