N0v 29th 2016 – Jan 7th 2017
Stagecraft: Book: Performance:
There was a buzz in the audience before the curtains even opened, to a medley of ‘Abba classics’ that the entire multi generational audience was surely familiar with. A theatre full of mostly female Abba diehards, out to see Mamma Mia the musical north of the border for the first time, included Scottish national treasures Judy Murray (mother of Andy) and Susan Boyle. I was surprised to see so many children in the audience; boys as well as girls, excited to witness the legend that is Mamma Mia! Of course, the film version would have made the story familiar to everyone, and there is unlikely a person alive who can’t hum at least one Abba song. Originally written by Catherine Johnson, directed by Phyllida Lloyd and produced by Judy Craymer, it is clearly written from a female perspective, with strong, multifaceted and immediately recognizable women characters. Sara Poyzer steals the show with her unwaveringly brilliant portrayal of Donna, the single mother running her Greek hotel, devoted to her 20 year old daughter Sophie who was born to one of three possible fathers from her ‘free love’ days of the late 1970’s. The story opens as Sophie, played competently by Lucy May Barker, finds her mother’s old diary and invites her trio of potential fathers to her upcoming wedding to her fiance Sky (Scottish Philip Ryan). We prepare for any possibilty; a recipe for disaster, or the possible rekindling of lost love and new bonds forged in the search for identity?
The set was very simple; a white, Greek style building to represent the hotel, relying very much on lighting to create mood and time of day. As we know, this secluded, unspoilt Greek island is such a idyllic setting as the backdrop for this romantic drama of British expatriates, it would have added to the magic if the set had reflected this more. The Greek hotel staff, in their traditional drab, dark cotton clothes, formed the chorus to provide the contrast to the mainly British, opinionated, well defined characters. A small point in the overall picture, but this use of ‘faceless but happy natives’ made the show seem a a wee bit dated. Added to the slightly tiresome trope of ‘fat but comical friend’ Rosie and innuendo of Harry’s homosexual orientation that now feels like a lazy way of fishing for laughs. But you can’t easily update a script from such a classic and well loved show that’s is still playing to packed out theatres ever since its opening in 1999. You can only make it your own. Which the actors surely did, with Rosie dropping down into splits in the middle of trying to cheer up Donna in the bedroom, thrilling the audience. This scene was funny and touching at the same time; old friends who are there for you through thick and thin. The actors who played Rosie (Jacqueline Braun) and Tanya (Emma Clifford) were perfect physical choices for the characters and this trio carried the show. Their larking about to Dancing Queen, doing all the silly stuff you do with your best friends, was a definite crowd pleaser. Their roles are well crafted, recognisable and inspirational and the synergy between the three women is satisfying and believable.
If the script makes the show feel dated, somehow the Abba songs manage to live on, despite their unadulterated cheesiness. It’s probably because even pop music from Sweden retains a traditional undercurrent of melancholy which lends well to the more emotional scenes. The structuring of the play is particularly clever in its use of Abba anthems to provide anchors and turning points for the plot. It’s so well done, it’s almost like they are made for the play, even though we know they have a completely different origin and history. Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! was one of best dance routines, with flashy and beautiful disco dancing girls reminiscent of Pan’s People, the music and lighting throwing you straight back into the trippy discotastic vibe of the seventies. The dream sequence to Under Attack was brilliant; visually arresting, slightly disturbing and confusing in exactly the way nightmares are.
Sophie’s slight stiffness, and longing for security provided the necessary contrast Donna’s ‘flower power’ hippie freeness, but I missed the sweetness and island vibe of Amanda Siegfried in the film version. However, she made the role her own, and her strong acting made the relationship with her mother compelling. The scene with Donna before her wedding, was beautifully acted, and when they sang ‘Slipping through my fingers’ it didn’t have just me crying, but evoked a line of loud sniffing from several women in the row behind me, and no doubt throughout the theatre. The men in the play had to take more of a back seat to let the women shine. Young guys had a classic ‘Chippendales at a hen party’ about them, with their spray tanned Essex boy physiques calling forth whoops and wolf whistles from the women in the audience but their youthful drunken exuberance and goofy dance routines were well played.
The arrival of three potential fathers was hilarious, and their very different characters immediately defined just by walking out onto the stage. Sam, serious, bewildered and cross, played by Richard Standing, is perhaps the hardest character to make us care about, with his wooden, inpenetrable facade holding up amongst all the glitter and slapstick. Harry (played by Tim Walton) was very likeable, delightfully awkward and familiar in his effete middle class British manner. Easier to like, as there’s nothing at stake. The scene between Donna (Lucy May Barker) and Sam during ‘The Winner takes it All’ was beautifully played, with Donna undoubtedly stealing the scene with both the sensitivity of her acting and the strength of her singing voice, just like she did with almost all scenes. We begin to relate to his torment as the cracks begin to show, revealing his unquenched yearning for Donna, allowing us to rejoice in their sweet reunion. Bill, the rough-around-the-edges Australian, played by Christopher Hollis, was hilarious. By the time the farce resolves itself in the church, we are rooting for everyone’s happiness and rejoice in ‘love conquering all’. Now it was just time for the high heeled boots, tight suits and glitter to conquer us fully, as the cast held nothing back in their final numbers. We were with them all the way.
Don’t go to this show and take any of it too seriously, as it’s not the point. Take it lightly, fully embrace the cheese factor, and let the glittering, tasseled experience leave you with a big smile on your face. Whether you just hum along to the melodies unconsciously embedded in your cells, or spring up to join the rest of the audience on their feet, dancing and clapping along, you’ll be glad you went.
Reviewer : Lisa Williams