Mamma Mia! – Milton Keynes Theatre and Touring

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Picture: Brinkhoff Mögenburg

Mamma Mia! continues at the Milton Keynes Theatre until 20 May, and then tours until February 2018.

Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩

Eighteen years after its inception by producer Judy Craymer and director Phyllida Lloyd in 1998, a phenomenal 17-year (and counting) West End run, and equally impressive stints across the world, the latest tour of Mamma Mia! hits the Milton Keynes Theatre.

As with the majority of jukebox musicals, this is a show which relies heavily on its back catalogue. This may seem to be stating the obvious, but considering Craymer’s pride in successfully pushing for an original story, rather than an ABBA biography in musical form, the story seems to be almost entirely inconsequential to the show’s success.

On a balmy evening on an unspecified Greek island we meet Sophie (Lucy May Barker), a bright-eyed 20 year old desperate to learn the truth of her parentage before her wedding day so she can be walked down the aisle by her biological father.

She has narrowed it down to three possibilities: the flashy Sam Carmichael (Jon Boydon), the nice-but-dim Harry ‘Headbanger’ Bright (Jamie Hogarth), and the vaguely Australian Bill Austin (Christopher Hollis).

She invites them to the island individually, posing as her mother Donna (Helen Hobson), who is equally clueless as to the identity of Sophie’s father and until now has been quite content keeping them as figures of her past.

You’d be forgiven for thinking there might be room for intrigue here. Unfortunately, the story acts simply as a springboard for Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ undeniably brilliant songs.

However. this means it must also be so loose weave that it can allow room for all fan favourites to be included.

During the reign of We Will Rock You this may have been acceptable, but now with shows like Sunny Afternoon, Beautiful – The Carole King Story and Lazarus proving that there is no excuse for sloppy writing in this genre, it’s hard not to feel slightly frustrated at the fact that this is essentially a greatest hits show that isn’t quite willing to admit it.

French and Saunders put it best in their legendary Comic Relief spoof of the 2007 film. ‘Mamma Mia! is the genius of ABBA with words in between’.

However, these are gripes with the show as an entity. The production fizzes with energy and has the audience and cast members feeding off each other’s energy from the first notes of ‘Honey Honey’.

Act I closer ‘Voulez -Vous’ nigh on blows the roof off, with Anthony Van Laast’s physically exertive choreography deftly handled by the pulsing ensemble.

Plus Howard Harrison’s spectacular disco-inspired lighting design and he remarkably well-mixed band led by Richard Weeden more than honour the score’s Europop roots. You’d be hard pressed not to be swept up in the atmosphere.

This show is as feel-good as they come, particularly thanks to the intoxicating comic flair provided by Sophie’s tirelessly energetic aunts, the effervescent Rosie (Gillian Hardie) and glam personified Tanya (Emma Clifford.)

Unfortunately Hobson’s Donna and Barker’s Sophie are somewhat less inspiring, with a disappointing lack of chemistry between the two actors making the mother-daughter relationship surprisingly difficult to credit.

It only feels real when we reach their show-stoppingly vulnerable moments, Hobson’s ‘Winner Takes it All’ and Barker’s ‘Thank You for the Music’, both of which are brilliant. It just makes one wonder whether they were feeling that level of commitment during the rest of the evening.

All things considered, Mamma Mia! can never be accused of being flat, and seemed to more than satisfy everyone in the auditorium.

However, if you’re not already a disciple of the cult of ABBA, this probably isn’t for you. The show is as it always has been, ‘a bit of fun’, but it’s hard not to long for an update to satisfy newcomers after all this time.

Alex Chard


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