When I think about the music of ABBA it immediately conjures memories of a cheesy wedding DJ set, the kind where everyone from your great-grandma, with her skirt hitched up round her knees, to your ten-year-old cousin throw shapes on the dance floor to the soundtrack of Dancing Queen.
After a particularly gruelling day at the office, my work colleague and I have come to watch Mamma Mia! at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. An avid musical theatre fan, it’s my colleague’s third time watching what has now been cemented as one of the best jukebox musicals of all time.
“You’re going to love it,” she says as we sip our drinks before the show, adorned with our complimentary blue and white garlands. “It’s so much fun.”
Fun is the word that comes immediately into my head when I think of ABBA. I saw the 2008 film with my parents, laughed all the way through, lusted a little over Pierce Brosnan and have many happy memories dancing around after a few gins with my best girl-mates belting out classics such as Voulez-Vous.
There are feel-good story-lines and then there is Mamma Mia!. Jammed pack with bright costumes, hilarious gags and catchy tunes, it’s easy to see why Mamma Mia has become one of Britain’s best loved – and successful – shows. It opens with 20-year-old Sophie Sheridan delving into her mother’s diary and memories of three partners, each of which could be the parent she’s never met. With an impending wedding to her fiancé Sky, she invites all three to return to the island where they last saw her mother Donna, hoping to discover exactly who helped to conceive her. But – just like any great story – things don’t go entirely to plan.
Using music and lyrics from ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, with some songs also featuring the work of Stig Anderson, what becomes apparent is how each famous song is not only a power standalone masterpiece, but that they connect to form a genuine and unforced storyline.
“It’s as if they always had it in mind that they would write a musical,” says my friend after curtain down.
Mamma Mia! is a celebratory and uplifting show but there are genuinely emotive scenes among all the feather boas and platform boots. Sara Poyzer belting The Winner Takes it All as battle-worn Donna left me with goosebumps and strikes a chord with anyone who has been left alone in love. And the stunning rendition of Slipping Through My Fingers was enough to move the audience to tears. In all the fun of the show, it’s easy to forget the genius behind the lyrics.
For me, the stand-out performances of the evening came from Jacqueline Braun and Emma Clifford in their respective roles as Rosie and Tanya, providing not only brilliant comic relief as Donna’s best friends, but a touching portrayal of female friendship. I howled with laughter during Chiquitita, thinking all the while of my own best friends and how it represented women as hilarious and wonderful in their own right.
While Lucy May Barker was good as Sophie Sheridan, her singing accent at times was confused, coming across as American pop-star esque. The same can be said for her on-stage beau, Philip Ryan in his role as Sky, whose lines often seemed garbled. However, they were incredibly believable as a young couple in love and the chemistry was sizzling during their rendition of Lay all Your Love on Me.
Though it’s the women who essentially steal the show, Richard Standing, Tim Walton and Christopher Hollis were fantastic as the three potential fathers to young Sophie – Sam Carmichael, Harry Bright and Bill Austin. For me, it was Walton as the English banker, Harry, who really shined and caused the audience to giggle. Each of the male character’s stories were just as valuable as those of their female counterparts.
The set is simple yet incredibly well thought out. Each change is slick and almost unnoticeable. The walls seem to twist and turn and bend, producing entirely different surroundings with very few props. Its wonderfully done and a true testament to the worlds that can be produced and transformed on the stage.
While there were great performances from the main players, it would be remiss of me not to mention the magnificent ensemble cast. The choreography from Anthony Van Laast was seamless and energetic, with each cast member giving it their all. What makes Mamma Mia! such a magnificent spectacle is the talent of each and every person on stage.
During the fantastic encore, where we are treated to not one, but three further ABBA songs and some spectacular costumes, I look around the theatre and scope out the audience. What strikes me the most about the turnout is how the show attracts such a varied audience. From older couples, to families with teenage children, everyone is up on their feet smiling, singing, and clapping along.
As I leave the Palace Theatre and wander through the streets of Manchester en route to Piccadilly train station, I find myself singing along absent mindedly to Thank You for the Music and feeling inexplicably happy. I can’t help but think of the lyrics to this famous song and how apt the line “without a song or a dance, what are we?’ really is. As cheesy as it sounds, music has the power to bring people together and to lift the spirits.
Mamma Mia runs at the Palace Theatre, Manchester until June 4, 2016. For more information, click here.
For touring details, click here