Mamma Mia!

Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, Book by Catherine Johnson

Prince of Wales Theatre

(2008)

Review by Philip Fisher

Nine years on, the granddaddy of jukebox musicals, Mamma Mia! is still going strong. Even on a Thursday night with a third choice star, the show has much to offer and played to the kind of house that many straight plays would die for.

The mixture is seductive. Millions of people still love bopping along to Abba's Greatest Hits in the privacy of their homes so the chance to hear them rearranged and sung live is attractive.

Add in multiple love stories set on a Greek holiday island, lovingly woven together by talented playwright Catherine Johnson, with enthusiasm contributed by the whole cast and director Phyllida Lloyd and you have the kind of winner that can simultaneously play in the West End and on Broadway; and is soon to be a hit movie starring Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan, with support from the likes of Colin Firth and Julie Walters.

Where Catherine Johnson has succeeded is in interweaving a rather sweet love story with the songs of Abba so that you rarely feel as if the music is gratuitous.

For 2½ hours, a primarily female audience is entranced by the tale of pretty, blonde Sophie Sheridan, a 20-year-old about to get married and played with great feeling by Katie Brayben, and her mum. Despite the love of mother Donna, excellently portrayed at the performance under review by under-understudy Leanne Rogers, there is a big hole at the centre of Sophie's life. She loves hunky ex-stockbroker Sky (Oliver Hembrough) but has never known the identity of her father.

Other than in the Biblical sense, neither has her mum, now a successful B&B owner with what must surely be the ugliest Taverna on the islands, looking uncannily like a nuclear shelter.

In an effort to discover her history, Sophie invites three candidates for fatherhood to be present at her wedding. Therein lies much of the evening's comedy.

In fact, Miss Johnson likes threes, as bride, groom, mother and fathers are all parts of trios. The funniest of these are the elder female generation, with Jane Gurnett and Joanna Monro hamming it up in support of Donna for all that they are worth, often to great comic effect.

Their male counterparts are a sorry trio of stereotypes, none of whom can sing too well, although once again, each of Andrew Hall, Paul Ryan and Richard Laing demonstrates acting skills that are not strictly necessary for their parts.

There is an inevitable multiple happy ending to send punters home with smiles on their faces but in many cases, following a great encore, the main pleasure will be in having all those wonderful nostalgic songs ringing around the brain for days to come.

Phyllida Lloyd's production is rather uneven with a fair amount that is solid but not terribly exciting with tremendous highlights, for example the older female trio belying the years as they sing Super Trouper, and, best of all, a really spectacular rendition of Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! with by far the best choreography of the evening.

There seems no particular reason why Mamma Mia! should not continue to please audiences for many years to come. It might be undemanding and, in the current production, has been cast very much more for acting and dancing than singing skills, but the formula works and gives the paying public exactly what they expect.

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