Shaftesbury Theatre & UK Tour
Reviewed – 21st May 2021
“the infectious atmosphere envelopes you and the bonhomie and banter sway in time to the backbeat”
Back in the heady hedonistic heyday of the early seventies, two young Swedish couples; Agnetha and Björn, and Benny and Anni-Frid, got together and embarked on an enterprise that would ruin both their marriages. But no matter, in the meantime they invented the Pop franchise, spawned a global industry of ‘tribute acts’, foresaw the jukebox musical, and thrust the music industry into the realms of multimedia and merchandise. They didn’t know this at the time, though, as they were busy with their in-fighting. But nevertheless, also creating a body of work that, nearly fifty years on, is still the soundtrack of people’s lives.
When the band broke up in 1982, it was decidedly ‘uncool’ to like ABBA. They were the biggest pop stars in the world. Yet while the musicians quietly stepped away from the limelight, the songs they created took on a life of their own. It is quite a phenomenon how the music has survived decades of cultural changes and artistic trends, ultimately uniting drag queens, housewives, hipsters, students and most in between.
“ABBA MANIA” is part of that legacy. Self-titled the number one touring ABBA tribute concert it swoops into the temporarily dark Shaftesbury Theatre to help re-open the West End with a party. Rule number one: if you’re invited to a gig like this, make sure your ‘plus one’ doesn’t stand you up, leaving you in the midst of an uninhibited (socially distanced) crowd and feeling like the sad, eccentric, dyed-in-the-wool fanatic, shyly tapping your feet whilst all around hips are swinging and arms are waving. At least I wasn’t wearing an anorak. But the infectious atmosphere envelopes you and the bonhomie and banter sway in time to the backbeat. “I thought I was coming to see Mamma Mia!”, a woman cries over the chorus – but not in the least disappointed. “I feel like I’m at a wedding in Manchester!” (whatever that means). “I f#@king love it… it’s so real”.
Is it real? The presentation of the numbers is spot on. Rhiannon Porter, JoJo Desmond, Edward Handoll and Loucas Hajiantoni take on the foursome with real panache and crowd-pleasing authority. We open with the Euro-conquering ‘Waterloo’, of course. Straight into ‘Voulez-Vous’ with added descant tipping its hat to ‘Moulin Rouge’, followed by all the favourites: ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ complete with audience participation with the glissando ‘a-ha’s’; ‘Mamma Mia!’, ‘Take A Chance On Me’, ‘I Have A Dream’ (which always reminds of a Coca Cola advert), ‘’The Name Of The Game’… The solo numbers stand out. For example, the stripped back ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’, or the soaring voice in ‘The Winner Takes It All’ – a gorgeous moment, even if it doesn’t quite pack the emotional punch of Meryl Streep crying to the Aegean Sea from a windswept Skopelos hilltop.
The singers’ inter-song repartee is limited to reminding us of where we are. Which is a shame as we want to forget. We are in a rainy night in Soho. However, the performers are giving us every ray of sunshine we can get. The party is in swing; ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’ follows ‘Super Trouper’ which follows ‘S.O.S.’. With the opening riff to ‘Dancing Queen’, it’s time to turn round and start watching the crowd. Spirits and arms are in the air.
Then it’s all over. Almost. The band are in the wings counting the foot stomps before coming back on stage. This tribute act claims to replicate ABBA’s final ever gig. It does, and it doesn’t. It certainly captures the essence, but it is unthinkable that there is any finality about it. As they sing out with ‘Thank You For The Music’, it is we who are really thanking them – for keeping it all alive. Like ABBA’s music, this show will go on. It is irresistible, timeless, belt-out, feel-good.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Mark Senior
Shaftesbury Theatre until 6th June then UK Tour continues – visit abbamania.com for details
Reviewed this year by Jonathan: