MAMMA MIA! has returned to the Playhouse Theatre Edinburgh for an all too short run (Thursday 19th to Saturday 28th September) as part of the new 2019 tour and, as expected, the theatre was full tonight. What can you really say about this show that has not been said already? Since its opening run in 1999, MAMMA MIA! Has been seen by over 65 million people around the world and it is one of the few stage musicals that has become an intuition and self-fuels its own publicity machine wherever it plays.
The show is of course based upon the timeless music of ABBA (Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad), and the story of how the show’s creator, Judy Cramer, had to convince Benny and Björn that there was even the seed of an idea to this production is of course now the stuff of theatrical legend. Fortunately for ABBA fans, Catherine Johnson was asked to write the book of the show and from this a clear path was ahead, and the rest as they say is history.
Over 65 million people may have seen this show, but to date I have not been one of them, so although I know the story well and of course the music, I was curious to see if the show’s hype matched its reality, and even more curious to see how well the songs adapted themselves to this production as, from a song-writing perspective, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson are for me two of the great writers of their generation, perhaps more than that even, two musical geniuses.
ABBA are always an odd band to me in many respects, and I don’t think anyone who was around at the time and remembers the very upbeat “Waterloo” winning that year’s Eurovision Song Contest could have guessed at the quality of the music that was to follow in the coming years. In fact, despite massive chart success, it was difficult at the time to find many people who would admit to buying an ABBA record (someone obviously was though), and tonight at the show was a bit like watching all of those secret ABBA fans over the years proudly coming out of their closets to celebrate their music. It was not only the original fans who were here though, but every age group – grandparents with grandchildren and every age in between. That age group spread did surprise me a little, particularly as some of the dialogue in this show is definitely for adults but, then again, pantomime does that every year with great success. Clearly though, this show and its music is appealing to a wide range of age groups and an even wider range of people.
MAMMA MIA! Is really a show in two halves with our Act 1 giving us the story of a young woman who is getting married soon and wants to trace her father so that he can be with her at her wedding, and Emma Mullen as Sophie Sheridan has that lightness of dramatic comedy touch and energetic optimism that is so required for this role, and a voice that suits her interpretation of the songs well. There is always that feeling of youthful hopes and dreams in Act 1, but this is counter-balanced in Act 2 by an often darker and more reflective story of a woman of a certain age reflecting upon her life, and Sharon Sexton as Sophie’s mother Donna Sheridan gives this show so much of its dramatic depth as we look back with her upon old relationships and ponder which of them is actually Sophie’s father; Sam Carmichael (Rob Fowler), Harry Bright (Daniel Crowder) and Bill Austin (Jamie Kenna) are all in the picture there somewhere. The appearance for the wedding also re-unites Donna with old friends Rosie (Nicky Swift) and Tanya (Helen Anker) and they help re-connect her to part of her lost youth.
This show is very much a woman’s show, and that perhaps explains why the female characters here are so better defined than any of the male ones, and it is also appropriate as Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson wrote some of their greatest hit songs from a woman’s point of view (some of the very few male writers to ever have the insight to do this successfully).
Even though this show is a massive success story, it is still at its heart a story written around existing song material and it is surprising how well these songs that were never designed to be put together in this way actually fit together so well to form a believable narrative. As always with this format of show though, some songs for me don’t survive the transition to their new settings very well, and one of my favourite ABBA songs, “Chiquita” suffers badly here from its forced comedy routine and loses so much of the simple folk-story roots of the original. Other songs though do bring new light and focus to the words of Benny and Björn, and “The Name Of The Game” is one of those. This song always has been for me one of the best songs written by anyone, but Sharon Sexton’s interpretation of it here is one of the highlights of the show.
This show above all is a “feel-good” show and that sense of fun and enjoyment of the music was obvious all through this show, particularly with the encore numbers. If this show does anything though, it highlights just how good these songs are and also just how varied the music of Benny and Björn could be as often sitting just beneath the upbeat pop melodies are lyrics of a far darker and reflective nature – “The Winner Takes It All”, “The Name of The Game”, and “Knowing me, Knowing You” being a few obvious examples of this skill.
Oddly enough, for such a large show, the set here is a basic and stripped down one (but effective) but that is balanced by very tight choreography on all of the production numbers. Tonight though, for some unknown reason it took a while to balance the sound in the theatre, but I don’t think too many people were that bothered about that anyhow as it seemed that everyone knew the words to most of the songs.
It is also always right that we should be reminded in the credits for this show of just how important Stig Anderson (Swedish music manager, lyricist and music publisher.) was to some of these songs and to "The ABBA" sound.
Review by Tom King