Wednesday, November 09, 2022

Mamma Mia – a well-oiled show that celebrates the audience’s connection with ABBA’s classic songs (Grand Opera House until 26 November)

The ABBA jukebox musical Mamma Mia is 23 years old. You’ll probably already know the story from the film adaptation, and you’ll be familiar with the twenty of more ABBA songs that drive the drama.

Sophie’s getting married in the morning. Having rifled through her Mum Donna’s diaries, she’s found entries describing a rapid series of flings with three men, any of whom might be her father. So she’s secretly invited Sam, Bill and Harry to the wedding without telling anyone. Meanwhile, Donna’s making the final preparations at her Greek island taverna for her daughter’s big day, and is catching up with her old bandmates Rosie and Tanya who’ve arrived for the celebration.

The stripped back set and costumes are mostly a gorgeous sea of beige and pale blue (only turning pink for the final nuptials). Two curved walls are spun around to create a handful of locations, furnished with wooden chairs, café tables and bed. The band – as many keyboards in the pit as guitars! – plays an overture that crams in the melodies from numerous ABBA hits before a wistful Jena Pandya appears on stage as Sophie.

The show’s plot neatly dovetails a young woman’s search for the backstory to her identity with grown-ups coming to terms with their youthful actions. As the premise for a jukebox musical goes, this is one of the least flimsy, and you’re never left in a confused state wondering what’s going on.

Mamma Mia’s hidden strength is the connection between the audience and the songs. Teenagers in the audience know the material from the film. The irritating 60-something man sitting over my shoulder singing along with every song clearly knows the words from the 1970s and early 1980s.

Phyllida Lloyd’s wisely direction keeps the actors in character and breathes new life into fresh arrangements of the poptastic back catalogue before letting the numbers by Donna and the Dynamos stray into gloriously dazzling ABBA replica territory.

It’s is a well-oiled show with a huge cast. Catherine Johnson’s book quickly introduces a lot of minor characters early on who are then neglected for most of the rest of the first act. Sophie’s besties Ali (Jasmine Shen) and Lisa (Mariella Mazzilli) deliver a great Honey, Honey before disappearing until the hen night. Toby Miles’ time on stage as fiancé Sky is surprisingly fleeting.

The staging of Chiquitita by Donna, Rosie (Nicky Swift) and Tanya (Helen Anker) in the middle of the first act is the most playful. The flipper dance accompanying Lay All Your Love on Me is a moment of brilliance that surely deserves to be referenced in the encore. James Willoughby Moore’s superbly cheeky Pepper steals a lot of scenes and then earns the audience’s extended applause with a series of straddle jumps that demonstrate the dance technique and stamina hiding behind the clown act.

Mamma Mia never takes itself too seriously. The post-interface dream sequence Under Attack is wonderfully offbeat. Crowder/Harry’s Our Last Summer is perhaps the best of the Dads’ big songs, though Take a Chance on Me with Corbitt/Bill does inject some farcical energy into the build-up to Sophie finally walking up the aisle. The story ends as it began with Sophie and I Had a Dream before the lighting rig descends into view for the glitzy three-number encore that gets the audience up on the feet.

With a three-week run in Belfast before pantomime takes over the Grand Opera House, you can see Mamma Mia until 26 November. Warning: this show briefly contains bagpipes!

Photo credit: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

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