I’ve got a question for the thousands who crammed into the Arena this week to see Mamma Mia! at the start of its month-long run. Where were you in 1981? Me? I was in Big School. And, as was the fashion back then, I’d painted the top flap of my hessian rucksack with an acrylic representation of my favourite band – a stamp of allegiance. My friends daubed Whitesnake logos, The Specials, or Pink Floyd on theirs.
I’d faithfully reproduced the cover of ABBA: The Album. Their wistful 1977 collection, influenced by the breezy west coast harmonies of Crosby, Stills and Nash and The Eagles, and shot through with painstakingly crafted observations of loss, loneliness and regret.
It was regularly pelted with eggs.
You see, to be at a Birkenhead high school at the fag end of New Wave and to openly love ABBA was no fun. No fun at all.
And so, for that reason alone, I’ve always been uneasy about the retrospective repositioning of ABBA as acceptable slice of glittery, end of the pier fun. All camp abandon and flyaway collars.
To like ABBA was all about self harm and suffering. We were the Emos of the day. We’d hang around Chavasse Park swapping our favourite spirit-crushing rhyming couplets (Walking through an empty house, tears in my eyes/ Here is where the story ends, this is goodbye…) while the cool kids swapped Panini stickers of Emlyn Hughes.
And Mamma Mia!, for all its relentless good times and gurning, isn’t a celebration of ABBA – it’s a disservice to those who struggled through the lean years.
Yes, as a piece of musical theatre it ticks all the boxes. There’s a neat little story, an elegant and clever set, a troupe of eager stage-school graduates hoofing with glee, and – at least on the evidence of this touring production – some pretty nifty sets of tonsils, backed by a spirited orchestra.
But the songs…oh dear, the songs. This is no way to honour them. Mamma Mia! hasn’t embraced and cajoled the hits to fit the story. It’s stolen them, tethered them down, and stripped them of their dignity.
Dressed up in spandex and sequins, the score resembled those doleful tigers Seigfried and Roy manacled to their Las Vegas stage shows. Noble, proud and beautiful creations – cruelly confined in a setting so alien and inappropriate as to be borderline abusive.
Yes, they work in a narrative setting – because ABBA’s songs were always narratively strong. Little chunks of Nordic angst and ennui. Stories that begin with lines like: ‘No smiles, not a single word, at the breakfast table…’, or ‘I hear the door-bell ring and suddenly the panic takes me...’ you know were just never meant to be karaoked on the terrace of a sunny Greek taverna. And, most definitely, never ended in a wedding. They’d end in bitter recriminations, a nasty, drawn out divorce and endless haggling over who gets the Ikea sofa.
ABBA’s back catalogue is about as suitable for a sunny Greek island as an African big cat in Caesar’s Palace. And, no matter how telegraphed in the songs are – cleverly segueing into every conversation (‘Yes, I remember when I split up from my first wife’ says Sam Carmichael… as the orchestra strikes up the opening bars to Knowing Me, Knowing You) they only fit the narrative in the most superficial way, skimming the surface, and reinforcing the lazy and ignorant belief that ABBA were purveyors of cheap music. They weren’t. And it’s a tragedy that the book has obviously been written by someone who really hasn’t appreciated the value of the gift they’ve been given.
‘Catherine Johnson’s sunny, funny story of love, laughter and friendship has been thrilling audiences around the world for over 10 years’ says the blurb on the Arena’s press release – and they’re dead right, it has. But ABBA’s stories? Sunny? Love? Laughter? And Friendship? What’s that line in The Name of the Game? Oh yes ‘I have no friends, no one to see – and I am never invited’. My, what a gag fest.
Mamma Mia! is a resolutely upbeat, celebratory and joyous evening at the theatre – of that there is no doubt. But it’s a most peculiar marriage. ABBA, for all their retrospective rebranding, were not a resolutely upbeat and celebratory band. Most of their music is written in minor keys. It’s complex, elegant and mature – all diminished sevenths, augmented fifths, counterpoints and passing clashes. It’s not a Boots Christmas Ad campaign featuring Loose Women slugging back the Rosé and being predatory with age-inappropriate personal trainers, or Sex In The City does Stockholm.
Musicals don’t have to be like this. Tell Me On A Sunday, Les Mis, Evita – there’s no shortage of award-winning, gloom-filled evenings tied together with a memorable soundtrack . Heck, Jesus Christ Superstar didn’t exactly have a happy ending.
The irony is, of course, that the Mamma Mia! franchise is now a global money spinner far more lucrative than ABBA ever was. But I just hope that when the history books on the shelf (you know, the ones that are always repeating themselves) are written, they’ll remember the real story.
Evening over, I went home, got out my Dr Dre headphones and slapped on The Day Before You Came – remembered the pain, and wallowed in it, deliciously.
Mamma Mia!- it’s fun, it’s light, and it’s very, very gay. And it’s the polar opposite of ABBA.
Mamma Mia!, The Echo Arena, Kings Dock. 3 – 20 June.