“you’d have to be the grumpiest stick-in-the-mud not to be swept along by the euphoria of the evening”
The phenomenal success of the Mamma Mia! stage show, which opened in London in 1999 is almost folklore now. Seen by more than 65 million people in over 450 cities and in 16 languages it was followed by the successful film, starring Meryl Street and Amanda Seyfried in 2008. Filmed on location on the small Greek island of Skopelos, it is perhaps one of the most ‘feel-good’ movies ever produced. At the end of each day’s filming the cast and crew would walk the narrow, winding alleys towards the harbour and have dinner in one of the tavernas. A favourite was one that looked out onto the Aegean Sea, run by Nikos, a widower with a young daughter. As the sun set and the moon rose, love blossomed and Nikos fell in love with Kate, the film’s costume designer. The rest is history, as they say. Although not quite – this is all in the imagination of Björn Ulvaeus (one quarter of ABBA and creator of Mamma Mia! The Party).
But imagine visiting Nikos’ Taverna under the tinted glow of a Grecian sunset twelve years later. The attention that the film bestowed on Skopelos is evident in the restaurant’s success; Nikos has enlisted quite a few hired hands including his now blossoming daughter, his wayward English nephew, an accident-prone chef and a host of all dancing, all playing, all singing waiters and waitresses. It’s hard to imagine, as you step out into the drizzle at North Greenwich Underground, that this oasis exists behind a sunburnt door tucked away in the O2. For four hours you leave your troubles behind and bathe in the bougainvillea scented air like you’ve just wandered off the beach and the night is yours. And what a night: a feast for all the senses. When not singing, the waiters bring you plates of Tzatziki, Spanakopita, Kleftiko, Yiachni, Baklava and Briam. You don’t understand what it means but it is delicious. And you don’t understand the show either, but you don’t care; you’re too busy loving every minute of it. As an ‘interactive dining experience’ it puts all other immersive theatre to shame. The scale is epic but the attention to detail is intimate.
But let’s not forget what this is all about. Three dozen Abba songs are rolled out between the courses. But don’t let that put you off. Even if you’re not a fan you’d have to be the grumpiest stick-in-the-mud not to be swept along by the euphoria of the evening. It starts off as a bit of fun but descends into spectacular chaos. High-brow it ain’t – but if you love Abba (and, yes, I’m including all those who pretend not to), and if you like a bit of escapism and fun then this is the show for you. It doesn’t come cheap but it’s worth every drachma.
“stylish camerawork, poignant moments, a witty script and cleverly integrated references“
Here we go again? Really? More rollicking enjoyment? More tireless exuberance? Another flood of Abba hits? Can we honestly take it all again? Well, it seems that Mamma Mia has grown up since the rip-roaring hen and beach party ten years ago, which audiences loved and critics loved to hate. Instead of letting down its hair in wild abandon, it painstakingly sets out to create fun. And this is what makes the sequel work; it has learnt from any shortcomings and understands what it is doing.
The story is simple. As Sophie prepares to open the hotel of her mother’s dreams, she reflects on how Donna (her mother) came to the remote Greek island of Kalokairi. Cue an array of young talent as the action ebbs and flows from past to present, revealing dreams, deceptions, heartache and happiness. Less of a vehicle for an Abba extravaganza, the music fits comfortably into the narrative, with some lesser-known numbers added to a handful of repeated favourites. There is some great singing and some… not so accomplished, but the songs are intelligently distributed among the fresher, cleaner voices. Lily James sings her heart out and is an undeniable triumph as young Donna, but Amanda Seyfried too has blossomed over the years and the three youthful dads add tuneful spirit to their established older models. The dancing is more sophisticated this time, with slickly choreographed sequences as well as the inescapable mass routines and everyone is included more or less within their limits. So, on the whole, we can sit back and relax.
As writer and director, Ol Parker gives the film structure, shape and wider appeal. Only one year after the go-ahead green light, ‘Here We Go Again’ will probably be just as loved by the audiences and possibly less hated by critics thanks to its savvier approach. Parker offers not just singing and dancing but a broader span of emotions and backstories which define the characters, stylish camerawork, poignant moments, a witty script and cleverly integrated references, for those who pick them up. His constant attention to detail keeps the film bubbling with anticipation and sparkling with life.
Any weaknesses? A handful of lines, notably from the bigger names, fall flat on delivery: Pierce Brosnan’s wooden dance style does stand out: the hype around Cher’s role as ‘Grandma’ is puzzling – of course she is a hugely charismatic star but in this film many people are as likely to remember Omid Djalili in his gem of a cameo role as the passport official. But, Mamma Mia purists, despite the adult emotions, obscure songs and newbie gate-crashers, there are still some cheesy lines, tastefully gaudy costumes and picture postcard photography. And although some may be disappointed that it is not the singalong romp of the original, it is certainly the feelgood entertainment we were all hoping for (or dreading). Enjoy it how you like, forgive what others may get a kick out of!