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Justin Murray

Review: MAMMA MIA! at the Novello Theatre

Mamma Mia! The Musical ABBA, and pop music like it, were never a big part of my childhood (in my household Mozart was considered avant garde, it’s a long story, I’ll tell you another time). But Mamma Mia has existed in the London theatresphere since the previous millennium, and, with the show reopening this week after a long pandemic-shaped hiatus, I went along to see what the big deal was.

You know the story: twenty-year-old Sophie (Emma Mullen) is getting married to the lovely Sky (Jack Danson), but has never known who her father was. So, sensibly, she ransacks her mum Donna’s (Mazz Murray) diary in search of her possible fathers in a summer twenty years ago and invites them to the Greek island where they all live. All three (Neil Moors, Stephen Beckett, Richard Trinder) turn up at once, much to the chagrin of Donna - but which one will give Sophie away? Old flames are reignited, relationships are tested, and mayhem ensues as the wedding looms closer.

In Catherine Johnson’s book, the hooks that prompt the ABBA songs are tenuous at best. The plot somehow becomes simultaneously a total irrelevance - indeed, the scenes that wrap up the story feel oddly flat and inevitable - whist also tackling some questions that will form part of almost every audience member’s lives: generational divides, absent parents, female independence. That it works is baffling. Subtle it ain’t. It’s at its best in its most gloriously zany moments, where insane costume changes, light, and sound steer it closer to pure gig theatre (the Act Two opener being the prime example of this). The problem with such a madcap, glitzy show is where, and how, to start, and the opening scenes feel in oddly bad faith to the true spirit of the production. That’s all forgiven and forgotten quickly, though, and reassuringly the show looks much (I imagine) as it has always done, all the choreography executed in stunningly slick unison. I’m far from a musical theatre expert, but the singing feels remarkably restrained considering the poppy source material, and work has clearly been done in finding nuance within the songs. A prime example comes in the Take A Chance On Me scene, where Gemma Goggin (Rosie) and Stephen Beckett (Bill) use the song to journey from shy skittishness to total abandon. Nor does it ever feel like 2 hours of belting: Trinder’s delivery in SOS is remarkably nuanced, and even in the emotionally fraught The Winner Takes It All, Murray holds back and plays it conversational before building to the climax the audience is here to see.

There are a few shows where the core of their DNA is found not in the show itself, but after the curtain call. Curious Incident is one such show (no spoilers), and Mamma Mia is another. It feels like the cast-and-audience dance to at least 2 top ABBA tracks were what the show was about in the first place, almost eradicating the story that preceded it in a rock-concert wave of enthusiasm.

So, as the world starts to return to a semblance of normality, Mamma Mia looms once again from the Novello like a glammed-up Thanos, snapping his Infinity Gauntlet: I am inevitable. It defies intellectualising with a playfully bacchic twirl and a great big grin. Critical questions of what-is-this-really-saying and should-this-show-still-exist thrown gleefully by the wayside in a haze of colour and exuberance. And the audience loves it, clapping along whenever encouraged (and sometimes when not) and clearly as ready to welcome the West End stalwart back as it was to be back. It will probably last for at least another twenty years, and you should probably get on board.