BWW Review: MAMMA MIA! THE PARTY, The O2
ABBA mania shows no signs of abating. Following the Mamma Mia! stage musical and two movies, here we go again with Mamma Mia! The Party - a hybrid musical theatre/dinner/nightclub experience. London is the first place outside of Sweden to host it, with plans to expand to other territories soon (Las Vegas and New York are possibilities).The ambitious scale of the operation means a traditional theatre space wasn't suitable, so the show has instead built its immersive, Bengt Fröderberg-designed Greek taverna set in Building 6 - previously a nightclub - at The O2. Come to Greenwich, escape to the Med (or at least a charmingly kitsch facsimile).
It's a mammoth operation, seating 500 diners around a fountain and on upper levels, plus bars, and of course space for musicians and performers. Later on, tables are moved and a catwalk appears for the disco portion. The evening is epic in length, too, with about four hours of combined dining and a show, followed by another hour of music for the dedicated dancing queens.
The detail of the design is impressive, from the checked tablecloths and mounds of bougainvillea to posters on the walls and a balmy temperature that will become increasingly appealing as we head into the winter months. Once seated, there isn't much opportunity to explore though, so where you're situated will certainly influence your experience (and some seats are listed as restricted view due to the pillars).
Calle Norlén, Roine Söderlundh and ABBA's Björn Alvaeus are responsible for the story, adapted for British audiences by Sandi Toksvig. But their combined efforts produce a pretty simple tale of star-crossed lovers and family strife, all hastily solved in a wan second half, plus some groan-worthy puns and gags - health and safety gone mad etc.
Linking the piece with the film franchise, protagonist Kate was the costume designer for the original Mamma Mia!, may or may not have gotten off with Pierce Brosnan, but definitely fell for Nikos, who owns this taverna on the idyllic Greek island of Skopelos where the movie was shot. Now, Kate's nephew Adam is romancing Nikos's daughter Konstantina, but Nikos disapproves, fearing Adam will tempt her away to England.
That's more or less it, bar smoking-addicted chef Debbie, who keeps setting the kitchen alight, and a dour, Greek-speaking grandmother. (None of the Brits abroad can understand her, but that's presented as very much the natives' fault rather than theirs.) It's hard to get a handle on the stakes, too; one minute, Nikos's word is law, setting up a proper conflict, the next, Kate has dismantled him with a crack about 1950s patriarchal views. Besides, it's too sunny a setting - and atmosphere - for serious drama.
However, in the jukebox musical tradition, narrative is very much just a line on which to peg the familiar hits, and here the show certainly delivers, cramming in a whopping 35 ABBA songs. That means the surrounding story beats are necessarily brief and blunt. What really matters is the lead-in to the next song - and there are some all-time-classic cheesy segues here.
Which is great fun for those ABBA fanatics in the crowd, eagerly guessing which number will come next. And, unlike theatre-based jukebox musicals, here you're positively encouraged to both sing along and record everything on your phones. Being one of hundreds of people blissfully yelping out the words to "SOS" is a marvellously camp pleasure - though, in contrast, some of the deeper ABBA cuts result in a distinct aggravated silence.
Placing such a premium on audience involvement does mean alienating moments like this stand out, and it's a shame there isn't more creative interaction throughout. The actors chat briefly to a few audience members, but given how eager this particular crowd is, one imagines the show could go much further (how about an ABBA sing- or dance-off?).
It's also telling that the most effective moment of drama follows a blackout - meaning an enforced period of concentration on the performers, rather than us eating, chatting, posting pictures and so on. That points to the show falling somewhere between traditional theatre, which relies on such focussed collective engagement, and truly immersive entertainment.
However, a chipper cast certainly commits to the material. Steph Parry (who also did the Mamma Mia! stage musical) gives Kate dignity and heart, Fed Zanni is suitably melodramatic as Nikos, AJ Bentley makes an appealing Adam, Linda John-Pierre is a scene-stealing Debbie, and Julia Imbach particularly strong vocally as Konstantina. Some also play instruments and dance on the fountain - though the major spectacle comes via pyrotechnics and the inexplicable but nonetheless mesmerising Cirque du Soleil-esque aerial work.
The cheery waiters also supply backing vocals and basic disco moves, but no characterisation beyond that. As for the actual meal, catered by rhubarb, it's fairly standard, mass-catered Greek cuisine - olives, salad and dips, rather good lamb (though no veggie option immediately available), baklava and cake. However, service is somewhat erratic; near the end, we had mugs with teabags, but no hot water, for a good half-hour.
Logistics like these will doubtless be addressed, as will issues like a long queue for entry and the lively onstage band sometimes overwhelming the singers. Otherwise, co-directors/choreographers Stacey Haynes and Söderlundh have created a slick operation, with well-paced and placed action, canny use of the various levels, ladders and staircases, a genuinely surprising audience plant, and an irresistible climax that involves Greek dancing and a wall-to-wall-banger ABBA megamix.
Overall, it does feel like the distillation of modern fandom: not just watching, but being part of and personally recording the experience. However, not everyone will be able to take a chance on this at times gloriously surreal theme park/panto/circus/singalong, with tickets from around £135 upwards. Yes, that's roughly equivalent to top West End prices, plus dinner and club entry, but you're not exactly getting a show to rival, say, Hamilton, and there are better meals to be had in The O2, let alone the rest of London.
One for a special occasion, then, or almost certainly plenty of work dos, hen nights and so on. I took my mum and we had a blast (childhood memories of playing ABBA Gold in the car came flooding back), though paying that much for tickets would have dented the fun somewhat. So, if you're an ABBA superfan who has a dream of serious escapism and wants to say thank you for the music, and you come ready to sing, dance and party, this hits the spot. But, as musical staycations go, it's a rich man's world.
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks