“It’s a party! Happy, happy, happy!”
It doesn’t cost that much to spend the weekend in Edinburgh, especially when Virgin Trains runs so late the ‘train manager’ repeatedly encourages passengers to go to the train operating company’s website to claim compensation. And my relative familiarity with the city centre thanks to previous visits to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe meant I could navigate my way around fairly easily, though I shall never quite get used to how steep the inclines are when getting about.
As there has been a production of Mamma Mia! stationed in the West End for the past twenty years, it never occurred to me to travel out of town to catch a touring show. But Bat Out of Hell the Musical’s Sharon Sexton and Rob Fowler had been cast in a ‘UK and International Tour’, news substantial enough to be broadcast by Elaine Paige on national radio, and my loyalty to the ‘Bat Family’ is as yet undiminished. So, I went north of Hadrian’s Wall to see what the fuss was all about.
The show opened on Broadway soon after ‘9/11’, and at the time there was some speculation as to whether the opening might be postponed. But the decision was made to go ahead, and such a feelgood musical must have lifted the spirits of a city in mourning. Now, Mamma Mia! is also the show that I bring up in conversation whenever a would-be reviewer (or even someone who just wants to know a little more about what it’s like) asks about what my approach would be to reviewing something a production that isn’t to my personal taste but objectively has a lot going for it. Give it the star rating and the review it deserves, irrespective of whether one cares for jukebox musicals or any other distinguishing characteristic of a given production.
Some of the more local audience members have been seeing touring productions of Mamma Mia! for years, booking each time it comes to Edinburgh and, to coin a phrase, having the time of their lives. Saturday night musical theatre crowds are almost always that little bit more electric than audiences during the week: this one was particularly fiery. While it may be true that, as someone said to me before the performance, “You can’t go wrong with ABBA”, even the repeat visitors seemed to be very impressed with what they’d seen: a cast genuinely enjoying themselves and wanting to give the crowd their very best.
A number of children were in the audience dressed in ‘Donna and the Dynamos’ costumes, and popped round to the stage door afterwards, and it is not beyond reason to imagine that one or more of them just might be treading the boards at Edinburgh Playhouse one day. Indeed, it’s a dream come true for this production’s Emma Mullen. In a recent tweet, Mullen recalls when she “first saw Mamma Mia! in this very theatre. Here I am 15 years later about to open the UK & International tour as Sophie. I literally cannot thank my lucky stars enough.”
Mullen has a star quality about her. A warm and engaging stage presence combines with a strong but nonetheless beautiful singing voice. A wide range of human emotions is convincingly portrayed during the course of the evening, from delightful bliss at the prospect of getting married to her boyfriend Sky (Toby Miles, who couldn’t have gone into a more different role from his previous one as Marius Pontmercy in Les Misérables) to palpable stress and confusion at the close of the first half as her elaborate wedding plans start to go considerably askew.
There are plenty of laughs abound in an almost relentlessly enthusiastic show – the choreography (Anthony Van Laast) is a delight. The musical numbers are fairly evenly distributed amongst the cast, with some expanding to full ensemble song and dance tunes – such as ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’ and ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’. I shall get some stick from theatre purists for saying this, but the performance was enhanced by members of the audience clapping to the beat of the music and singing along – there wasn’t anyone in my section being obnoxious and/or woefully out of tune. Standouts for me were (in no particular order) Rosie (Nicky Swift) singing ‘Take A Chance On Me’, Sam Carmichael’s (Rob Fowler) emotionally charged rendering of ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ and Donna Sullivan (Sharon Sexton) bringing the house down with ‘The Winner Takes It All’.
As for Sexton, I can only agree with Mike Smith in The Edinburgh Reporter, who wrote that her “portrayal as Sophie’s mother achieved the considerable feat of making you laugh one minute and having a lump in the throat the next”. In the end, it all builds up to the final bit, the famed extended curtain call where the audience rises to its feet when the narrative has run its course, in anticipation of a high-octane medley of ABBA tunes that are so very familiar. One would have to have a heart of stone not to come away beaming from this incredibly joyful and enthusiastic show.
At Edinburgh Playhouse until 28 September 2019. Then La Seine Musicale in Paris, 4-20 October 2019; Alhambra Theatre Bradford, 30 October-23 November 2019; Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, 10 December 2019-5 January 2020; Theatre Royal Newcastle, 22 January-8 February 2020; Mayflower Theatre Southampton, 11-29 February 2020; Hull New Theatre, 3-21 March 2020; Royal Concert Hall Nottingham, 24 March-4 April 2020; Liverpool Empire, 28 April-9 May 2020; Birmingham Hippodrome, 12-30 May 2020; Bristol Hippodrome, 2-20 June 2020; Marlowe Theatre Canterbury, 23 June-11 July 2020; Theatre Royal Plymouth, 21 July-8 August 2020.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.