This review was first published on Daily Review on 16 February 2018
ABBA are too often dismissed as those comely Nordic popstars who defined Eurovision camp while singing of heterosexual love and heartache. To do so forgets the group’s music has only been outsold by those other four megastars of pop, The Beatles. And ABBA arguably left an even greater imprint on pop. Madonna, Kylie, Taylor – ABBA is all over all of them. Like the Swedish seasons, they could do darkly melancholic as well as they could do light (What’s The Name Of The Game? The Winner Takes It All), particularly after ABBA’s married pairs consciously uncoupled.
The reasons for ABBA’s success are not unlike that other famous Swedish brand of four upper case letters. Walking into an IKEA display room is like being in an ABBA song: everything is beautiful, clean, perfectly placed and infused with dashes of Swedish folk notes. But the effect of pared back simplicity is painstakingly achieved with the carefully layered placement of hundreds of elements. ABBA made not so much a wall of sound, as a room of sound that, like an IKEA showroom, could sometimes seem to contain the whole world.
But that’s where the analogy ends. For while about five percent of the IKEA catalogue is built solidly and beautifully enough to stand up in twenty or thirty years, the ratio is reversed for ABBA’s back catalogue. The word ‘perfect’ is carelessly tossed around these days, a mostly meaningless phrase that seems to function as an antidote to a world of petty meanness. But ABBA really did do perfect pop songs. Lots of them. And ones that aren’t easily recreated at home, which is really the best reason to see this latest production of Mamma Mia! (touring Australia and now playing in Sydney).
This latest Australian production has Natalie O’Donnell as Donna, mother of the bride-to-be Sophie – the character O’Donnell played in the original Australian production in 2001. Donna was left heartbroken and washed up on a Greek Island 20 years ago by Sam (Ian Stenlake). When he returned and found out she’d gone off with another other man, he went home, married and became an architect more successful at building homes than keeping his own home together.
He’s back on the island with the two men Donna consoled herself with all those years ago – London banker Harry (Phillip Lowe) and wandering commitment-phobic writer Bill (Josef Ber) – because Sophie read her mother’s old diary and wants to find out just who her father is. Anybody could be that guuuuy… (See what I mean? You can’t spend a few hours lost in the ABBA oeuvre without picking up a gorgeous thing you didn’t know you wanted or even needed: before you know it it’s in your trolley and you’re at the checkout making it yours).
It’s the older cast members who really inhabit ABBA’s songs. Jayde Westaby as Tanya, Donna’s four-time married friend and uber cougar, is phenomenal. Her take on Does Your Mother Know? is a masterclass for the cast’s younger members. The production’s gender flipping of the song (the original has an older man singing ‘you’re so hot/teasing me’ to an underage girl) pulls it back from the wrong side of awfulness. Here, Westaby is well matched by beach bum Pepper (Sam Hooper).
Alicia Gardiner (Offspring’s nurse Kim Akerholt) plays Rosie, the third member of the Donna and the Dynamos trio. When Sam’s arrival sends Donna into a spin, her two friends console her with a gorgeously funny take on Chiquitita. In fact the best numbers of the night – Dancing Queen, Super Trouper – are so good because, like ABBA, they make the most of beautiful female harmonies overlaid with that room full of sound.
Sarah Morrison, as bride-to-be Sophie, makes Honey Honey as sweet as can be, but her musical theatre delivery style often seems to be from another production. There’s an old-fashioned trill to her voice that – on the best interpretation – is matched by Sophie’s old-fashioned fantasy of a white wedding.
Mamma Mia! is all about the wedding and love matches – the Bechdel test has never been failed so badly. While the three older women all suggest there’s more than one way of being in that demographic – single parent, serially married and defiantly unhitched – the unhappily unmarried must eventually marry. But not before Donna wards off some slut shaming: ‘I haven’t slept with hundreds of men’. Or before ‘headbanger Harry’, the original weed fiend who spent his middle years as an investment banker, finds love with another man. Sophie, as seems her birthright, is left free from matrimonial chains, for the time being.
The costumes stay on the right side of lurid – a little bit Priscilla, a little bit Ibiza. The band brings out the big sound for the big tunes – Dancing Queen, Waterloo – but at times if felt as though it was holding back, like it was the house band for the gambling cruise ship Sophie’s beau, Sky, wants to circle the island. ABBA’s power was that their music was so forcefully seductive it could compel millions of people to move with a few opening bars. With a bit of rock music, everything is fine/You’re in the mood for a dance… That’s why we come.
Weddings aside, Mamma Mia! is also, in the end, a story about mothers and daughters. At the hens’ night Donna turns the love song Super Trouper into a love song for her daughter ‘cause somewhere in the crowd there’s you’. If you have one in your life, take your own Chiquitita (see what ABBA does to you?).