As we can do nothing but watch (and shiver) as the wintry weather takes hold, balmy summer days have never seemed further away. That was until we took a trip to the Theatre Royal in Newcastle, of course, to see what is undoubtedly the sunniest musical of all time – Mamma Mia!
Lifelong ABBA fans and firm defenders of the Mamma Mia! movie franchise (it’s supposed to be cheesy, guys), we already knew we were going to have a good night with this one. But what we weren’t necessarily expecting was a level of stage craftsmanship that, quite honestly, rarely leaves the West End.
Now a global phenomenon, Judy Craymer’s ingenious vision of staging ABBA’s timeless tunes with a sunny, funny tale of a mother, a daughter and three possible dads (all unfolding, where else, but on an idyllic Greek island) has proved a hit with audiences the world over. To date, the stage show has been seen by over 65 million people across 50 productions in 16 different languages. In 2011, it became the first Western musical ever to be staged in Mandarin in the People’s Republic of China, and is now the eighth-longest running show in Broadway history. Oh yes, and there was that small matter of a feature film adaptation in 2008 starring Meryl, Pierce, Colin and friends.
So what was awaiting us here in Newcastle? Well, as the curtain was raised we were met by a solitary figure – Emma Mullen, who plays the young lead of Sophie Sheridan – looking wistfully into her hands as she considered three envelopes, each addressed to one of the three men (we later find out) she believes could be her father. Her sweet, tremulous rendition of I Have A Dream was beautiful in both it’s execution and its tone, and proved to be just a taste of the pitch-perfect vocals we were to hear from Mullen in the two hours that were to follow.
Yes, the chronology of the plot followed it’s sister on the silver screen almost exactly – meandering calmly until Mullen’s rendition of Honey, Honey ignited the show’s musical engine, thrust it into fifth gear and propelled it into a flurry of catchy, toe-tapping hits that tumbled forth into the audience’s open arms one after another.
Of course, a review of Mamma Mia! wouldn’t be a review of Mamma Mia! unless we mentioned mother-of-the-bride, hostess with the mostest, Dynamo leader and all-round feminist icon Donna Sheridan. She was brought to life on the night by West End star Sharon Sexton in a remarkably full-circle turn of events. Mamma Mia! was the first show Sexton left her home of Ireland to audition for in London some 15 years ago; although unsuccessful back then as Sophie, her turn as Donna was certainly star-worthy. As likeable as Meryl Streep in the show’s film adaptation, although she cleverly refused to give a copycat performance, Sexton’s vocals never veered off-pitch throughout and her renditions of Slipping Through My Fingers and The Winner Takes It All were particularly impressive for their tear-jerking emotion, (if the sniffles and wiping of eyes throughout the auditorium were anything to go by, anyway).
The entire cast seemed perfectly chosen for each of the characters that almost all of the audience were already familiar with; Rob Fowler was suitably suave as Sam, Daniel Crowder was cheeky, cheerful and camp as Harry, and Jamie Kenna brought a funnier and arguably more likeable side to the adventurous Bill than we’d seen before. But the two actors who deserve special mention, and, indeed, who were the first to inject real laugh-out-loud humour into the performance, were Nicky Swift and Helen Anker in the roles of Donna’s friends, Rosie and Tanya, respectively. Indeed, it was as though Julie Walters and Christine Baranski were on the stage themselves, except for the subtle differences each actor demonstrated that really helped stamp their individuality onto the roles. It could certainly be argued that they got the loudest cheers of the night.
An integral aspect of the show that mustn’t go without a mention is its musicianship. The live orchestra were simply outstanding – seamlessly blending all of ABBA’s greatest hits into one big medley that was used to introduce each act, and stunned with its creativity. Not once did they drown the actors out, but complemented their craft sensationally. Because let’s face it, we probably all know deep down that the music of this show was the main reason all seats in the Theatre Royal’s magnificent auditorium were filled.
So what else is there to say? We went to Mamma Mia! with high expectations but left with those expectations suitably exceeded. And with the show continuing at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal until 8th February (as part of an international tour celebrating 20 years since its premiere in London), we’re calling a state of emergency – a SOS, if you will – to get your own tickets soon. You won’t regret Taking A Chance on this musical masterpiece.
For more information about Mamma Mia! and to buy tickets, visit www.theatreroyal.co.uk