This was my daughter’s fourth time seeing this perennial blockbuster, but it was certainly the most unusual with the audience sitting in a windy field near Leeds.
This was the very first time the team behind the Mamma Mia! juggernaut have opted for an open-air production and given how protective they are of the brand they threw everything at it – live band, massive lighting rig, pin sharp sound plus the full set and cast.
And to make extra sure it would work for a near capacity crowd, including Olympic champion Jonny Brownlee, they packed the cast with Mamma Mia veterans who were clearly enjoying the challenge of this new format. It would be easy for performers who know this show backwards to coast through it, but they were really trying to project their performances to the people at the back of the field.
The real innovation was two massive video screens that allowed folk at the back to see what was going on, and thanks to some intense work in rehearsal, plus some really clever camera work, the rest of us had close ups of some of the tender or comic moments you might miss in a theatre.
Unless you have been living as a hermit in a cave in the Himalayas for the last 22 years, or have never heard of musical theatre, you will be familiar with Catherine Johnson’s book for a show watched by over 60 million people so far.
Lucy May Barker played Sophia in the West End who ends up being the only real adult in this live rom-com, and she is utterly convincing as the confused young woman trying to find her real dad. Her yearning The Name of the Game and total control of the spooky Under Attack were born out of years of doing this show.
Matching her song for song was another West End vet Sara Poyzer as her mum Donna. It’s a tricky role requiring quite a few gear changes from tough tavern owner to vulnerable single mum, but her defiant, broken rendition of The Winner Takes It All was a showstopper, and a sensitive Slipping Through My Fingers will have moved all the parents wrapped up in their camping chairs.
She’s joined in a well worked romp through Chiquitita by Helen Anka (Tanya) and Nicky Swift (Rosie), who not only sings well, but are great fun all night, especially when they don outrageous lycra for the crowd-pleasing Super Trouper. Anker’s Does Your Mother Know with James Willoughby Moore’s wonderfully daft Pepper is hilarious.
One of the many things that made the movie of this show so dull was the fact that none of the three potential dads could hold a note if their life depended on it. Not so here as Richard Standing (Sam), Daniel Crowther (Harry) and Phil Corbitt (Bill) can knock a tune out and showed off their comedy chops. Standing injected real pathos into Knowing Me, Knowing You enhanced by Howard Harrison’s lighting design.
All too often the ensemble is ignored in big productions, but they really added something especially in the big numbers and made the most of Anthony Van Laast’s witty choreography that has stood the test of time just like this warm and funny show.
In an odd way the screens made this production feel more like a rock concert that helped everyone appreciate the pop genius of Abba’s Benny and Bjorn, who seem to have been subconsciously writing this musical throughout their days as half of Sweden’s biggest ever export.
If evidence was needed that this concept worked then it came in the now traditional end of show medley of Abba classics when the whole crowd went absolutely bonkers in exactly the same way they do in theatres. My daughter mused on the way out that ‘people seem less inhibited in the open air’, and she was dead right as when Mamma Mia newcomer Toby Miles playing Skye showed off his pecs there was an audible murmur from the crowd and a few whistles.
One of the Benny and Bjorn’s more bittersweet moments among all the big numbers like Voulez-Vous is one of Abba’s lesser-known tunes, Our Last Summer, but that won’t be the case for this innovative West End standard production as I think there will be plenty more open-air versions now they know it works so well.
Mamma Mia is at Harewood House until Monday 30th August 2021. To book www.mamma-mia.com or 0344 338 800.
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 16th August 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★