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BWW Review: ABBA MANIA, Shaftesbury Theatre

With a title like that, you know the name of the game.

BWW Review: ABBA MANIA, Shaftesbury Theatre BWW Review: ABBA MANIA, Shaftesbury Theatre There's a very funny Swedish documentary (no, really, it is funny) in which celebrated film director Lasse Hallström talks us through the videos he made with Abba. They may be iconic now (flattery doesn't get much more sincere than in multiple parodies from Erasure to French and Saunders) but at the time, their cheesiness was overwhelming. He also explained that the clothes were so garish because Swedish tax relief was only available for stage costumes - and they didn't want to leave the taxman in any doubt when clawing a little back.

That's an example of what might be called Abba's "Help!" problem. John Lennon's jaunty tune and brilliant vocal performance swamp the fact that the song is about the early stages of a nervous breakdown. That's not to say that people get the song "wrong" - there is no right and wrong way to hear music - it's just that there's more going on: acutely personal stuff being smuggled in under the radar, emotional turmoil revealed and concealed by pop's wispy confection.

So too with Abba. In the 70s, it was hit after hit after hit, unprecedented global success built on Benny's hooks, Björn's showbiz nous and the sheer superstarriness of Agnetha and Frida upfront, soprano and mezzo soprano voices balancing as beautifully as did their looks - it was a rare alchemy at work.

A little later, there was a reassessment, partly the result of backstories emerging, partly the result of the original fans growing up and understanding that songs like "SOS" and "The Winner Takes It All" sound different at 26 than they did at 16. The music fans who once scorned the Eurovision-launched commercial goldmine also began to appreciate the craft in the songs' orchestrations, the glacial clarity of the vocals, the genius of the presentation.

Later still, the Mamma Mia! stage and screen phenomenon brought in yet another vibe, one rooted in partying and female empowerment, the break-up and, let's not mince words here, divorce stuff as much about seizing autonomy and opportunity as about personal trauma. The songs had re-invented themselves again.

So, after an emotional introduction from the theatre's manager (who really should have dressed as Napoleon) for his team's first production since the pandemic, My My, we had faced our Waterloo and we were back!

As my Swedish son tells me, Swedes always prefer social distancing, pandemic or not, but we Brits like a crowd and it did feel a little strange to have so many seats left unoccupied - but everyone, on both sides of the fourth wall, was just glad to be back.

Crowdpleasing was the er... name of the game, so, though we slowed down for the ballads ("Fernando" and "Chiquitita" were greeted with audible sighs in the house) it was mostly upbeat, singalong, dancealong stuff. And, after all those months shuffling round the kitchen, why not?

All, well, almost all, the favourites were included (the absence of "Slipping Through My Fingers" saved me an embarrassing tear or two) so there was something for everyone. If the superfan could nitpick a little - the delicious Swedish lilt was absent in "SOS" for "I wish I onder-stude" for example and, though the girls stay in character, they sing "each others' parts" at times - such detailed verisimilitude is not really the aim of the show.

Rhiannon Porter deals heroically with both the spray-on spandex pants and high register Agnetha demands, JoJo Desmond anchors the melodies as Frida, Loucas Hajiantoni bennies away behind the keyboard and Edward Handoll leaves his guitar aside to take it to another level with a raucous "Does Your Mother Know", dad-dancing and all. Anders Rye, Paul Gregory and Dan Hall do solid work in the band.

Tribute shows are like pantomimes - on stage, you have to treat the genre seriously and in the audience, you have to buy into the conceit - and, in consequence, demand to be judged on their own terms. I've seen shows in Vegas that aim for an uncanny facsimile of the original artists and damn near make it, but most go for evocation of spirit, a harnessing of the old energy for new fans, for a bloody good night out.

Abba Mania rewards you splendidly - if you rock 'n' roll with the flow . And I do, I do, I do, I do, I do.

Abba Mania is at the Shaftesbury Theatre until 6 June.

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From This Author Gary Naylor