Originally published on London Box Office
Sometimes I get a gut feeling about whether I’m going to enjoy a production before I’ve even walked through the door. Normally I mistake this for hunger and grab a chocolate bar that I really don’t need, but this time as I walked through the doors of the Novello Theatre I had an uneasy feeling telling me that I was not going to be impressed by this show. But, Mamma Mia! has been running for 16 years and is still going strong, so I told myself to watch it with an open mind. Now don’t get me wrong, I love ABBA and can often be found belting out Dancing Queen in a karaoke bar or on a dance floor. I figured that I would spend the evening happily singing along to a corny show with a crazy storyline and great performances. I should have listened to my first gut feeling.
Written by Catherine Johnson, Mamma Mia! adapts the iconic songs of ABBA (written by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson) into the story of a young girl looking for her real father to give her away on her wedding day. Set on a Greek island, Sophie Sheridan (Alice Stokoe) sends off 3 letters to 3 unknown men that her mother Donna Sheridan (Dianne Pilkington) was known to be romantically involved with 20 years earlier. The day before her wedding, the 3 men arrive on the island thinking that they were invited by their old love interest Donna and not her daughter. Sophie sets about trying to discover the identity of her real father, whilst Donna is unsurprisingly more than a little shocked to find 3 blasts from the past on her doorstep. The story itself is easy to follow and coupled with those iconic songs it definitely appeals to a family friendly audience of all ages. Unfortunately the casting was not at all up to par for a musical of this standard and with this level of success; it just didn’t leave me with that heartwarming feeling you expect from musicals of this type.
The two main characters were the mother and daughter and given the number of females in this cast I expected them to really lead by example. Sophie Sheridan (Stokoe) was consistently off key in all of her songs and acted in quite an amateur fashion; I didn’t feel it was a believable performance. In a way I do feel for both female leads here – they are given songs that are deceptively difficult to sing, but because they are so well-known there is absolutely no room for error. So when the show opens with a weak, lacklustre performance of ‘I Have a Dream’ by Stokoe it is very difficult to shake that first impression off. I really tried to find something positive about her performance and all I can hope is that she was having an off-day; her voice did sound tired in the top register and didn’t harmonise well with romantic interest Sky (Lloyd Green) in their duet ‘Lay All Your Love On Me.’ Donna Sheridan (Pilkington) was better but still showed moments where her voice sounded equally strained. These unfortunately came at the pinnacle of some otherwise well performed songs, like ‘The Winner Takes It All’ – a great acting performance made up for it in this case though. Pilkington’s performance issues came as much more of a shock to me, when I was flicking through the programme I couldn’t help but be hit by the iconic roles that she has played in the past (Glinda, Grizabella, Fantine & Cosette are hardly small roles).
Pilkington’s stage experience did shine through however when she acted against her 2 best friends, Tanya (Kim Ismay) and Rosie (Rebecca Lock). These 2 characters easily stole the show for me – they were funny, they had great stage chemistry together and their voices were well matched with Pilkington’s. The songs ‘Chiquitita’ and ‘Dancing Queen’ showed the experience of these 3 performers in comparison to the younger cast and were a saving grace of this show. The other standout performance came from the male protagonist of the play, Sam Carmichael (Richard Trinder). Trinder was cynical, dry and interacted well with Pilkington until the final wedding scene, which was written in a sickly sweet rom-com style where everything was magically resolved and the lovers live happily ever after.
The production as a whole also seemed a little bit tacky. The set evoked the atmosphere of a Greek island but was gaudy and at times a bit too bright. The choreography had moments of brilliance (‘Voulez Vous’ was sexy and sassy) but overall didn’t set me on fire. Maybe overall I have been a bit harsh about everything given my gut feeling. I do understand why the show has done so well, but in my opinion if Mamma Mia! had just premiered today against its current competitors, I would give it a lifetime of 6 months and no more.