Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 01/04/1999.
After spending much of my first year on the site concentrating on the best arts and entertainment available, eventually I had to crack and do a full-throttle FOR THE LOVE OF GOD STAY AWAY FROM THIS PIECE OF SHIT post. Not that anyone listened, of course, given that the show's been a hit in numerous cities across the globe since then. And that whole 'firebomb the theatre' spiel looks a little bit tactless in the wake of what happened down the road from the Prince Edward Theatre just one month later. Oops.
In other news, Mamma Mia! The Movie opens worldwide later this month. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD STAY AWAY FROM THIS PIECE OF SHIT.
Curiously enough, on the way to the theatre to see Mamma Mia!, Spank's Pal Christine made a point of noting how I always found something good to say about any piece of theatre I've seen.
On the whole, that's true. Life's too short to dwell on the negative side of things, which is why for the most part this site is full of upbeat and positive reviews: I tend to find that I prefer to write about the stuff I like than the stuff I don't like. The other reason is that hatchet jobs are just too damn easy. As is patently obvious from the sort of drivel that passes for reviewing in most of the press these days, there's a tendency to assume that a string of amusing put-downs at the expense of a piece of art is enough to constitute a review. Anyone who's tried it will tell you that it takes a lot more effort to write about the good side of an artistic experience than simply slag off the bad side. In short, snide attack pieces are nothing more than lazy journalism, and something that will generally be avoided on this site.
It should be pointed out before we start that when I saw Mamma Mia! at the Prince Edward Theatre in London, it was still previewing. As is the case with most West End shows in general and musicals in particular, the run includes a couple of weeks at the start where the show is allowed to bed itself in in front of an audience before the official press night. It's considered terribly bad form to judge a show on the basis of a preview, when they're still working on ways to make the show better.
Here's my three point plan for making the show better than it was at the preview. Firebomb the theatre. Piss on the ashes. Shoot the survivors through the head. There, that should do it.
The unique selling point of Mamma Mia! is pretty damn obvious: it's the Abba musical. Producer Judy Craymer and writer Catherine Johnson approached Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus a year or two ago with a proposition. How would they feel about their hit songs being worked into an original plot for a musical? Bjorn and Benny are no strangers to musical theatre - they co-wrote Chess with Tim Rice, and currently have a box office hit in their homeland with Kristina From Duvemala, based on a classic Swedish novel. But this was the first time they'd been approached to do something with the songs they wrote for Abba. And foolishly, they agreed to let it happen.
The resulting musical had the potential to either be a complete work of genius, or pants. Peter Paphides in Time Out summed up the possible pitfalls of the approach succinctly: "there's no dignity in writing a musical about a super trouper called Fernando who takes a chance on a dancing queen and appears on TV quiz show The Winner Takes It All, but then ends up losing all his money money money to a man after midnight". He was in the middle of an exclusive interview with Bjorn at the time and probably thought it was a little impolite to say the following, but I'll say it for him: that's pretty much what they've done.
The action takes place on a small Greek island over two days. Sophie (Lisa Stokke), the 20-year-old daughter of local bartender Donna (Siobhan McCarthy), is on the verge of getting married to Sky (Andrew Langtree). Sophie has never known who her father was: through a sneaky peek at her mother's diary, she narrows it down to one of three men, and secretly invites them all to the wedding. Will Sophie find out which one is her father in time for her walk down the aisle? Will it be Bill (Nicolas Colicos), the American writer? Harry (Paul Clarkson), the wild and crazy guy who used to be known as Headbanger? Or Sam (Hilton McRae), the one who doesn't appear to have any recognisable personality traits, but has more songs to sing in the second half than the rest of them? Or will they just go for a copout ending where Sophie accepts them all, leaving her mum to get married to the one with no recognisable personality traits and so on?
Quite frankly, it's difficult to care. Catherine Johnson's book for the musical doesn't know whether it wants to be an all-out kitschfest or a serious study of mother-daughter relationships: whether to acknowledge that the show's based around some of the classiest pure pop songs ever written, or to play up the whole seventies revival trash angle. It tries to go down both routes simultaneously, and ends up in some sort of excruciating no man's land between the two. It's a problem that affects the whole production: director Phyllida Lloyd and designer Mark Thompson have done some extraordinary work together in the past (notably on Hysteria and Six Degrees Of Separation, both for the Royal Court), but they end up smothering the action in fluorescent frogman suits, comedy foreign accents and sexually predatory fat women in an attempt to distract you from the sheer lack of anything going on. Despite this being a show that's apparently been approved by its songwriters, it does appear to be taking the piss out of the songs, a fate they don't deserve.
And the twenty-four Abba songs are shoehorned into the plot in the most embarrassing way possible. The only comparison that springs to mind is with the Crackerjack finales of years gone by. For our American readers (I do enjoy saying that), Crackerjack was a children's TV programme of the sixties and seventies which was a mixture of songs, sketches and games. The finale every week was an extended sketch which somehow always managed to include three of the songs in the pop charts of the time. So, for example, Peter Glaze would be piloting a spaceship or something, and Don Maclean would walk in wearing a pair of boots made of tiger skin. "I really love those!", Peter would say, and the pair of them would launch into a rendition of Mud's Tiger Feet. And so on.
Mamma Mia! takes an almost identical approach. So as Donna lies on her bed worrying about the sudden arrival of three ex-lovers, her friend asks "Chiquitita, tell me what's wrong?" Bill sees that Sophie is obviously plotting something and asks her "what's the name of the game?" You get the idea. However, there isn't a single performer on stage with the vocal charisma of even Peter Glaze, with Lisa Stokke's petulant whining being particularly annoying. You suddenly realise just how many of Abba's hits ended with a fade on a repeated chorus: that sort of thing doesn't work live on stage, so every song is rewritten to have a big showtune climax, which is even worse. Last year's reworking of Saturday Night Fever as a stage musical (which took all the songs from the movie soundtrack and gave them to the characters to sing) had similar problems, but at least had high-energy choreography of the musical numbers by Arlene Phillips which powered the show along. Here, Anthony van Laast has the characters flop around the stage listlessly, and the closest thing to wit in the dancing involves someone miming the use of a spade during the last line of the chorus of Dancing Queen. Yes, really.
One song points up the ultimate problem with this show, and it comes halfway through the second act. As Donna helps Sophie into her wedding dress, she sings Slipping Through My Fingers. It's one of only two songs in the entire musical that weren't previously singles: it was a track on The Visitors, Abba's last album. For once, a low-key dramatic situation - a mother musing over the loss of her child - is accompanied by a song that you don't know all that well which doesn't carry insane quantities of baggage with it, and you can almost feel for a few minutes that you're watching a reasonably good musical. But within minutes Donna is banging on about how The Winner Takes It All, to an accompaniment that trades in the subtlety and dynamics of the original for stereotypical Broadway bluster, and it's all falling apart again. It's interesting to consider how much better this all would have been if they'd had the courage to use a few more lesser-known Abba songs: the whole thing could have ended up with Donna, Sophie and one of the prospective fathers starting up a perverted ménage à trois to the tune of Two For The Price Of One (also on The Visitors, in case you think I made that up).
The most terrifying thing is, given the legendary mental enfeeblement of West End musical audiences, this is guaranteed to be a hit. The sole purpose of the show is to perform 24 songs that the audience, for the most part, already know and love intimately. Never mind that they're played and sung atrociously: never mind that they're mired in the most appalling script being spoken on stage anywhere in the world at this moment. This show cynically knows that the songs will carry it through, and makes everything else only as good as it needs to be, and sometimes not even that good. On the night when I saw it, when Donna refused an offer of money from Harry with the line "That's more than enough for four weddings! And a funeral!", and the audience applauded it, it proved once and for all that the people behind this exploitative pile of unadulterated crap knew exactly how little work they had to do to draw a crowd. Bjorn and Benny's songs, as time has proved so far, will last: they don't deserve this kind of treatment.
Don't worry, Christine. The reviews on this site will now go back to their usual cheerful, positive, upbeat format. But I do reserve the right to hurl lumps of shit around my cage once in a while. Being a monkey, and all.
Mamma Mia! has an official site so they can sell the show to gullible foreign tourists, rather than just annoying us locals with it.
UK Theatre Web is a useful reference site if you want to find a show to see in London instead of this one. Any show. The National are doing a cracking version of Troilus And Cressida right now, if you're interested.
Abba have an official site with news and stuff. It's their 25th anniversary year this year, you know.
The Official International Agnetha Benny Bjorn Frida Fan Club [dead link] seem determined not to mention Abba in their title, but that may be because they also look at the quartet's post-Abba activities. [This now appears to have become The Official International Abba Fan Club. Which is nice, because it allows me to recycle my joke from the original article's introduction, where I referred to Mamma Mia! as 'the Abba fan disaster'.]
Bjorn Again probably deserve a mention for their splendidly affectionate Abba tribute show and site to match. Meet Frida Longstokin, Agnetha Falstart, Benny Anderwear and Bjorn Volvo-us and find out when they're next playing in your town.