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Mamma Mia! - Novello Theatre (here we go again etc)

I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating simply because it’s true – there’s something about stepping away from the reviewing circuit and seeing a performance as a member of the audience, as opposed to a member of the press. For one thing, one gets to experience what theatre bar prices are really like – by contrast, for a production I reviewed recently, I had an email printed out that read, in capitals, “I AM A MEMBER OF THE PRESS”, which when shown to the bar staff, would entitle me to a complimentary drink. Alas, it was a one-time only deal and absolutely not universally applicable. And absolutely not transferable. Soz. You know I would if I could.

Perhaps because it was both a bank holiday and a Monday night (and therefore not a sold out performance), clearing security and getting into the Novello Theatre was faster than usual. There was a good mix of other patrons around me – a young couple was (I think) on a date night, and some overseas visitors were studying the cast’s previous credits listed in the programme with amazement. To be fair, some of them have had absolutely stellar careers. The cast, I mean. But once you get past the half a dozen or so ‘grown ups’, most of them are in their twenties, and even so, they too have a considerable number of credits between them, which just goes to show the pool of talent available to the producers and casting directors of Mamma Mia!

This is, of course, the real deal, in the heart of the West End: none of the avatars, or ‘Abbatars’ of ABBA Voyage in a purpose-built arena in suburban London. There was a cast change in early October 2022, so by the time I rocked up for a return visit to the show in early January 2023, they would have either gelled, so to speak – or not. Well, if they don’t get on, they’re doing an utterly amazing job at masking that, and the show feels hammier than it did last season. But playing to the gallery works here, eking out the laughs in the book’s punchlines as much as the choreography harnesses the energy of the show’s largely young cast.

This remains one of the best jukebox musicals – the only other one, for me, that comes close to it is Jersey Boys, though that one, in its current form in London at least, has so much swearing in it these days that it’s really f*cking boring and demonstrates a collective lack of vocabulary. Meg Hateley as Sophie is very much a younger version of her (actual) mother Linzi, as well as having sufficient vocal power to credibly pass off as the (stage) daughter of Mazz Murray as Donna. Murray, as ever, nearly blew the roof off with her rendering of ‘The Winner Takes It All’. Miles Henderson’s Sky has a likeable and reassuring presence and Jake Bailey draws out Pepper’s cheekiness in a way that put a smile on my face.

And then there’s Norman Bowman as Sam Carmichael, taking over from the great Richard Trinder in a role he first played (as the programme would have it) thirteen years ago when the show was still at the Prince of Wales Theatre, near Piccadilly Circus. His is a relatively quiet and slightly broody Sam, and Murray’s Donna responds in kind, starting ‘Winner’ with more subtlety than before. There are, of course, some melancholy moments, which in turn make the joyous ones all the more worthwhile. ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ was no less emotionally intense than last season, even if the British stiff upper lip firmly holds now (I used to quip that a stagehand should nip on stage with a wet floor sign, such were the amounts of tears flowing).

I note the production has chosen to go down the route of a television series to select next season’s Sophie and Sky. I’m not sure what to think of that, or what the criteria for entry would be, but it does not appear to be one of those shows that will let the audience decide who they want by way of telephone ballot – it will instead be “judged by an expert panel”. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with letting a wider audience see the audition process, and my only criticism is that, with a new Sophie and Sky to be put in ready for the twenty-fifth anniversary celebrations in 2024, it would appear the incumbents won’t be given the option to stay on. Or will they? There have been stories of auditions and callbacks for certain roles (not in Mamma Mia!, mind you) where the selection process has stopped simply because the current lead actor has chosen to stay on for another year. This seems a very odd and wasteful way of doing things, ‘arse about face’, if you will. We shall see.

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