Book: Catherine Johnson
Music and lyrics: Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
For all of her 20 years, Sophie lived with her mother, Donna, in Donna’s tavern on a Greek island. And so far, that’s been enough for Sophie: Donna doesn’t talk much about the time leading up to Sophie’s birth. But then, as Sophie prepares to marry her lover, she finds her mother’s diaries from 21 years ago anddiscovers that there are three men who could be his father. Wanting to know more about herself and her heritage, she secretly invites them all to the wedding under the name Donna. All three accept and arrive on the island. Begins a journey no one will forget as Sophie tries to uncover the truth and buried secrets are revealed.
Mama Mia! may not be the first jukebox musical, but it is arguably the most successful to run in the West End since 1999 and is among the ten longest running Broadway musicals. Its success can be firmly placed on the Abba music that is used: throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, Abba dominated the charts – indeed, you could say their style of pop was pretty much perfect for the era, with hummed tunes and lyrics that usually told self-contained stories. The theatrics of much of their back catalog makes it particularly well suited for use in such a show.
As the lights go down, musical director Carlton Edwards and the band make a stunning statement of intent as they play a medley of Abba hits that soon has audience members shaking and toe-tapping. Phyllida Lloyd’s direction ensures that, before intermission at least, the show doesn’t take itself too seriously, occasionally winking metaphorically at the audience, with some brilliant comedic moments and memorable physical comedy: the Sky’s friend and tavern employee Pepper (James Willoughby Moore)’s attempt to seduce Donna’s man-eating friend Tanya (Helen Anker) is particularly memorable, as is the bachelor party, with a dancing ensemble in wetsuit, tubas and flippers. After the intermission, however, the mood is more introspective as the three would-be dads gradually realize why they’ve been invited and attempt to step in, before a whirlwind ending.
Newcomer Jena Pandya’s Sophie dominates the stage whenever she’s around. Her sense of joy is contagious and we feel that the production could save on her lighting bill as her smile lights up the stage. And what a voice! Pure and powerful, it strikes the different moods perfectly, producing a soul note or a full rock belt when it is needed. Truly a terrific performance. Sara Poyzer brings out Donna’s vulnerabilities nicely as we see her supporting her daughter in a business she doesn’t fully understand, having been forced to be on her own for so long. She too has a massive voice – although initially affected by sonic balance issues during this performance. His interpretation of Slip through my fingers with Sophie is particularly poignant and moving, while Winner takes all is quite electrifying, leaving the enthusiastic audience silent with anticipation.
The three fathers – Sam (Harry Carmichael), Bill (Phil Corbitt) and Harry (Daniel Crowder) all bring their own vulnerabilities to the show, each displaying impressive singing skills during the performance. Donna’s longtime friends Tanya and Rosie (Nicky Swift) bring a lot of humor through their physique.
Globally, Mama Mia! is a triumph and great fun, but it’s not without its flaws. The familiar need of a musical jukebox to get as many hits as possible means that certain supporting roles seem to exist only to facilitate the inclusion of a song and so these characters, unlike those of the main ones, do not remain only roughly sketched: this also makes Catherine Johnson’s book appear a bit disjointed at times. However, these are minor criticisms of a self-assured show that delivers hit after hit, brilliantly performed by an energetic cast, and some truly touching moments that wash over you. It’s no surprise that the encore has the audience on their feet, clapping and dancing on the seats.
Until May 14, 2022 and on tour