It is almost impossible to talk about Mamma Mia! (the musical) without immediately comparing it to the film, which is unfortunate given that the stage-show preceded the phenomenal success of its cinematic twin. And twin it is, because both are virtually interchangeable; the live show experience is unusual in adding little to the energy that watching it on DVD in your living room will bring. But in fairness, perhaps this says more about the success of the film than it does about the show's failure to add real-life charisma to the formula.
The stage show is certainly enjoyable, particularly (it seems) if you are either a tipsy member of a hen party or a twelve year old child. In all respects it lives up to expectations: it is professional, slick, easy on the eye and feel-good. Its huge advantage, of course, are the songs, which are so recognisable and catchy as to have entered the cultural canon almost by accident. Almost every song, even from the first few bars, draws an audible hum from the audience and it is difficult to imagine that even the most curmudgeonly of people doesn't have some memory - party, wedding or birthday - at which at least one of these songs did not play a part. They are played by the live orchestra with impressive accuracy, barely diverging from the original recordings, and I doubt much of the audience realise they are sharing the theatre with musicians, both due to the orchestra's professionalism and the fact that they are hidden almost entirely under the stage. They could have been in full view, the Greek locals, downing aperitifs and playing music in the sun.
The story, as we all know by now, is weaved around the lyrics and songs of Abba's Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. It centres on the comic and weepy possibilities that can be derived from a young woman, Sophie Sheridan, trying to discover which one of three men is really her father whilst attempting to keep her overworked mother, Donna, in the dark. Add in a couple of weddings, a Greek island, the highs that must be hit to make sense of the entirely senseless magic of Abba's disco hits and the overwrought emotion to match the questionable depths of SOS and The Winner Takes It All and you have a story of sorts. Or rather, you have sufficient material to make an audience leave the theatre happy, which on the West End probably amounts to much the same thing.
The performances can only be described as professional - almost too much so. The actors sing, they dance, they battle through the schmaltz with the inexorable determination of a snow-plough and they give everyone a real good time. It is clear though that they are all in the show for the long run; some are clearly battling strained voices and the rest are noticeably holding back, their vocal technique on display, hitting all the right notes but with none of the joie de vivre and rip of an actor doing a shorter run. But this all goes without saying and there are shows currently on the West End that have been running longer and probably feel even more jaded than this. Unfortunately, it is surely also true that there are currently musicals running that are an awful lot better.
Like so many other romantic comedies, the show really only comes to life when the comedy sidekicks get their moment. In particular, Joanna Monro and Kim Ismay as Donna's randy friends are a real delight and have everyone hooting with laughter every moment they are on. Charlotte Wakefield as Sophie is cute enough and Neil Roberts and James Gaddas as two of the possible 'sperm donors' bring a light touch to the otherwise leaden male leads. The romance between Sally Ann Triplett's Donna and Gary Milner's Sam Carmichael never really takes off, despite the fact that, far from being a wallow in the world of love struck teenagers, this show was originally intended as a paean to the success of mid-life relationships and sex.
All of which is entirely irrelevant, of course. The most important ingredients are all present and correct in this show: Mark Thompson's set is flexible enough to deal with cosy taverna interiors as well as the open space of sea and sand, the music is uplifting to the point of delirium and the ending happy enough to make the Easter Bunny weep with joy. Anyone going to see this show knows what they will be getting and so, as a self-selecting group, they are likely to give this show more than the three stars of this review. For what it is, it is probably faultless.
Name of Show: Mamma Mia! The Musical
Playwright/Book: Catherine Johnson
Composer/Music: Benny Andersson/Bjorn Ulvaeus
Lyrics: Benny Andersson/Bjorn Ulvaeus
Premiered: 6 April 1999 (Prince Edward Theatre)
This Production Opened: 9 June 2004
Tweet: 1 Greek island, 1 over-worked mum, 1 girl in search of a dad, 3 men in search of a daughter, 1 wedding and ABBA! What more could you want?
Synopsis: When Sophie Sheridan decides to get married at her mother’s creaking Greek holiday hotel, she decides to invite the three men she hopes may be her father. The question is, which one is it, and who will end up walking her down the aisle? As Sophie’s mother, Donna, comes face to face with three unwelcome faces from the past, her two loyal friends attempt to avoid disaster, keeping them apart until Sophie is safely hitched. Of course, the men have different ideas and various comedic chaos ensues. As Sophie struggles to figure out who her father is and battles against her fiancé, who would prefer to avoid a big white wedding and go back-packing instead, Donna struggles with her own past disappointments and her lasting love for one of the three possible fathers. All of this is cleverly woven around the songs of ABBA and, predictably enough, winds up with Sophie heading into the sunset - unmarried but happy - having seen her mother claim the marriage license and a man for herself. Ostensibly a teenage romance, this is actually about the joys of love in later life and leaves a warm, if slightly sickly glow.
- "The Winner Takes it All" will bring a tear to the eye.
Why See It: If you like ABBA, feel-good romcoms and a good laugh, this is for you. Every song gets the audience going, so be ready to clap and sing along- everyone else will be. In particular, look out for Donna Sheridan’s comedy side-kicks, played by Joanna Monro and Kim Ismay. They are hilarious and will have you crying with laughter on more than one occasion. The set too, will transport you to the heat of Greek island and away from the wet, cold summer of London.
Caveat: The story line is predictable as a roast turkey at Christmas, the cast are a little jaded- they have been in the show for too long and it shows- and overall it is more sickly sweet than a five year old’s birthday cake.
- The stage show includes one song not present in the film: ‘Under Attack’, at the start of the second act.
- Mamma Mia! has been so phenomenally successful that, on any given day, there are at least seven performances somewhere on Earth!
- The Greek theme is not just a setting: the musical is set to emulate a classic Greek play, with a chorus of common people, strophe/anti-strophe dynamics and various choice props...
Night after night, audiences are having the time of their lives at MAMMA MIA!. Catherine Johnson's sunny, funny story of love, laughter and friendship has been thrilling London audiences for over 10 years. More recently it became the biggest British hit movie of all time when the three women who created the worldwide stage smash hit adapted it for the silver screen.Inspired by the storytelling magic of ABBA's songs, from 'Dancing Queen' and 'Take A Chance On Me' to 'Super Trouper' and 'Thank You For The Music', MAMMA MIA!'s enchanting tale of family and friendship unfolds on a Greek Island paradise. On the eve of her wedding, a daughter's quest to discover the identity of her father brings three men from her mother's past to the island they last visited 20 years ago. Over 40 million people worldwide have been dancing in the aisles to this sensational musical, and London is where it all began back in 1999. So who will you bring to experience the joy and exhilaration of MAMMA MIA! with you?
Prince of Wales Theatre31 Coventry Street
London Greater London United Kingdom W1D 6AS
Monday to Thursday and Saturday 7:30pm - Friday 8:30pm, Friday 5pm and Saturday 3pm
Duration: 2 hours 45 minutes
Mamma Mia! 2012 UK Production © Brinkhoff & Mögenburg