Tuesday 7th June 2001, The Prince Edward Theatre
Review by Emma Shane
© Summer 2001
A problem with really big long-running shows, such as Mamma Mia, is that one never really has any idea or control over which performers one is actually likely to see. In the Ballet world audiences book to see named Principals, thus avoiding a night when ones chosen performer(s) are on holiday. Obviously they may still be unexpectedly absent due to illness or such like. Even so, in the Ballet world, at least, the replacements are usually of a sufficient standard that one will not mind too much, if a favourite is indisposed. In the world of big West End musicals there is no such system; therefore, it is very much down to luck (and relying on word-of-mouth) as to whether the performers one wants to watch are actually on or off on a given night. And if they are off, the programme gives no way of knowing if the absence was planned or unexpected. With the price of West End tickets being what they are, it is perhaps time to consider whether the audience could be given some indication, when booking, which principals are scheduled to be absent at that performance. It would also be a good idea if the casting directors chose first replacements (big shows like Mamma Mia have three for each main character) who are actually suitable and capable enough to play the role convincingly.
Seeing Mamma Mia for the second time was certainly different. The show seemed to lack energy; The fact the Louise Gold was absent (reason unknown), and thus Tanya was played by Lesley Coleman may have affected my perception of the show this time round. I was prepared, however, to be open-minded about Ms Coleman’s performance. Since the show is now on to Cast 3, the only principals I had seen before, in Cast 2, were: Louise Plowright’s Donna and Lesley Nicol’s Rosie.
The opening of the show, and in particular Honey Honey seemed more rushed than I remembered it. Amanda Harrison and Haley Tamadden were fine in their roles. I was not initially enamoured of Amanda Salmon’s portrayal of Sophie, I felt she lacked the warmth that Julie Atherton gave the character. But I very much liked Julie Atherton’s performance, so that was going to be something of a hard act to follow.
We came to Tanya and Rosie’s first entrance. There is something a bit haughty about Lesley Coleman, but one should give her a fair chance and try not to judge her too harshly, because obviously a different actress will play a part differently, and Louise Gold is so unique that her portrayal’s of a character are bound to be rather individual. Lesley Nicol was, so far, much like I remembered her, and when she entered, Louise Plowright proved to be, as I remembered every inch the Leading Lady. She introduced her staff and they all launched into Money Money Money. The production seemed to lack the energy it had had when I saw it before. Louise Plowright was fantastic, really made this terrific number something to notice, she put it over extremely well, but the chorus in general and her two co-stars in particular, failed to back her enthusiasm. For the first time one missed the strong (sometimes possibly over-strong) support that certain singers (such as Louise Gold and – not from this show - Anna Francolini) can give a number when they are in the ensemble.
The show continued with Sophie greeting the three men, and singing Thank You For The Music with them. Peter Forbes, Rohan Tickell and Simon Slater, were different but alright in their respective roles, and while I did not find Amanda Salmon as likeable a Sophie as Julie Atherton, she was never-the-less convincing. Then Louise Plowright entered, in dungarees, armed with that drill, and found the three men.
In a flash, the atmosphere changed. For, super trouper Louise Plowright, suddenly snapped into action and really woke the audience up with the title song Mamma Mia! Until that moment the show had been sluggish, but it was as if the leading lady realised something was wrong with the show tonight, and being an excellent leading lady promptly did something about it. It was almost as if at the moment she rasped at Sam “I was cheated by you, and I think you know when” she could’ve been telling her audience not to cheat her. Her efforts worked, from that moment on she at least, got a proper Mamma Mia response from the audience.
The next scene was such a come down, the previous time I had seen the show it had been one of the best and funniest scenes of all, but now far from it. It got off to a bad start, with Lesley Coleman’s interpretation of her character. I have no idea how Louise Plowright interpreted Tanya when she originated the role, nor how Lori Haley Fox did it towards the end of Cast 1’s tenure, nor do I know what Louise Davidson did with it when she played the part last December. But I cannot imagine that any of them (especially Plowright and Davidson) would have portrayed her quite so sniffily, as though everything about this place is beneath her. When Louise Gold played her, Tanya had trouble blowing up an air-bed because she hadn’t done that before, but she’ll pitch in and make a go of it, however, when Lesley Coleman plays her, such activities are beneath her. It is similar matter with her reaction to Rosie’s suggestion of taking the men fishing. When Gold exclaims “Fishing, Oh God” it is simply that she cannot think of anything more boring than spending a morning fishing. But with Coleman the activity is infra dig. The audience is left to wonder at how anyone as eminently sensible and down-to-earth as Louise Plowright’s Donna could possibly have such someone so pretentious for a best friend. One also wonders own on earth someone so sniffy ever condescended to be the backing singer in a pop group. When Tanya said to Donna “Whatever happened to my Donna El Rock Chick Supremo”, Donna replied “She grew up”, and Tanya says “Well grow back down again.” I could not help but feel it was a case of “Speak for yourself Tanya”. Gold’s Tanya may have not seen her best mate for years because she’s been too busy getting married and divorced to millionaires, but you feel confident that if it came to a crisis she’d be right there for her true friends. With Colemen’s Tanya the character lacks that humanity. Coleman’s interpretation of her character could not help but affect the interactions between the characters, although, Louise Plowright, to her great credit, did try to salvage the situation by modifying her own portrayal accordingly. For example: When Gold had played the part there had been a rivalry between the pair. And Donna was really unwilling to do that number at the Hen night, so Tanya had her work cut out persuading her to let her hair down and do it. But this time, Plowright clearly sensed that that approach wasn’t going to work with Coleman, so she made Donna a little more easily persuaded. It worked to some extent, and she did salvage something from that scene, but only in so far as keeping her own character intact, even she couldn’t save her co-stars act. Meanwhile Lesley Nicol tried hard, with a brave attempt to get the comedy going in the scene (and she is a pretty good comic actress), but unfortunately, as a result of getting very little response for her efforts (from either her co-star or the audience), she ended up going rather too far and descending into silliness. Still, at least she tried. As for the songs, Chiquitita was sung passably, but acted a trifle unconvincingly, especially with the line “You’re best friend, the one you can rely on”, while Louise Plowright managed to rescue the second half of Dancin’ Queen.
I am pleased to report that Amanda Salmon and Raza Jeffrey handled Lay All Your Love On Me more than passably.
Thus we came to the Act 1 finale of Sophie’s Hen night. Super Trouper went across well, purely because the magnificent Louise Plowright was shining like a sun. Her backing singers managed to stay largely in the background; which, of course is pretty much where there supposed to be, although, Louise Plowright commands the stage so well it would not have mattered if they had attempted to steal the number from her, she would simply have shared it with them (as she did the first time I saw the show). After this Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie and The Name Of The Game went over well enough. I’m not entirely sure if the choreography may have been altered a little. But anyway it was fine.
Then we came to Voulez Vous. I found this one of the most unconvincing moments in the show. I think it was due to a combination of both script and performance. First of all Donna, Rosie and Tanya returned to the party. I do not remember Donna being present before (although, I have seen pictures showing that back in Cast 1’s day Siobahn McCarthy’s Donna was present at this point). Anyway, I don’t think she should have been there, because I just couldn’t believe that someone as sharp and on the spot as Louise Plowright’s Donna wouldn’t notice what was going on between her daughter and her three ex-boyfriends. Of course there is the possibility that she is distracted by what her two best friends are doing, certainly last time they had distracted the audience to such an extent that I cannot recall if Donna was present or not. This time, Lesley Nicol tried very hard to provide the distraction, I do not recall her trying to hard before. But Lesley Coleman’s Tanya, with Adam C Booth’s Pepper failed to draw attention. I was not terribly impressed by Adam C Booth’s Pepper. However, I think it is quite possible the actor may well have been having an off-night, because Lesley Coleman’s disagreeably sniffy portrayal of Tanya would surely be enough to put any young stud off trying to seduce her.
Act 2’s opening was, surprisingly much better than I’d remembered it. I’m not that keen on Under Attack, but Amanda Salmon’s performance in the number was really good, much better than when Julie Atherton had done it. I’m not quite sure what Louise Plowright was doing dressed in what looked like black leathers in the middle of it, but its nice to see her in the number anyway. The scene that followed, consisting of the songs One Of Us and S.O.S both of which went across extremely well, were among some of the best moments in the show. By this time, that is hardly surprising since Louise Plowright is evidently on top form, even if some elements of the rest of the production are not. I was particularly struck by the scene when Sky, Pepper and Eddie returned, for Raza Jaffrey (who like, Ms Plowright is a graduate of the Bristol Old Vic) is excellent as Sky, even better than Gareth Bryn was, and it is noticeable that though she could easily carry the scene herself, Louise Plowright holds back and makes room on the stage for Raza Jaffrey to shine too.
The next scene, Tanya’s big scene, was again such a come-down. It was just so unconvincing. One simply could not envisage such a sniffy person in this situation. As for Tanya’s big number, Does Your Mother Know, well the best that can be said of it is that Lesley Coleman’s singing was just about adequate, and she did sing the lyrics clearly. Admittedly it seems to be a difficult number to perform; the best sung version of it I have heard is Louise Plowright’s recording on the Mamma Mia Original Cast Album, which eclipsed even the original ABBA recording of the song. Louise Gold, it has to be said, did not sing the number quite so well, but this did not matter too much, because she put it across by acting and dancing it very effectively. Unfortunately Lesley Coleman completely failed to act or dance the number at all convincingly. I do not necessarily mean to say that she cannot dance, but the interpretation she had given her character made being convincing almost entirely impossible. It was easy for her Tanya to ignore the chemistry between her and Pepper, for the simple reason that there did not appear to be any chemistry between them. That debacle was followed by something rather better, Simon Slater singing Knowing Me Knowing You, which was quite passable.
The next scene was one of the very best scenes in the entire show, not least because Louise Plowright starred in it. First we had Donna and Harry reminiscing about old times, Our Last Summer. Louise Plowright carried the number, but Peter Forbes did a good enough job as her supporting player. This was followed by that touching moment of Donna helping Sophie into her wedding dress, with Louise Plowright’s fine melodic voice all the while delighting us with Slipping Through My Fingers. Touching the scene might be, but it is not without comedy; when the skilful star of the show, having set Sophie’s wedding dress out on the floor, took a few paces back, and then enlivened the proceedings by posing herself momentarily so that it looked like she might be about to try and dive into it. The final part of the scene found Sam entering for a chat, and Donna responding with The Winner Takes It All. In the original ABBA recording of the song, and indeed in Siobhan McCarthy’s recording on the Original London Cast Album the ‘Winner’ in the song is the guy she is singing it too. But when Louise Plowright sings the number he is the loser standing small and she is The Winner who Takes It All. Which is exactly describes this magnificent leading lady. With her style and her beautifully rich voice, it is possibly her very best number in the entire show.
The next scene, immediately before the wedding with Lesley Nicol’s Rosie, singing Take A Chance On Me to Rohan Tickell’s Bill was pretty similar to the way she had done it before. As for The Wedding scene itself, Amanda Salmon and Raza Jaffrey played the parts more convincingly that Julie Atherton and Gareth Bryn had done, good though those two actors had been. Sam’s proposal to Donna caused Tanya to cry, and this time she was definitely meant to be crying (unlike Louise Gold, Lesley Coleman’s Tanya is so stiff she’d never do anything as demeaning as laugh). Louise Plowright managed to be slightly less convincing in accepting Sam’s proposal, than in the rest of her performance, but that is due to the script having a slightly contrived “happy” ending, rather than her acting ability.
And so we came to the post-ending songs. Amanda Salmon and Raza Jaffrey reprised I have A Dream, this was alright, although I personally prefer Julie Atherton’s singing of it. The curtain calls went without incident. Leading lady Louise Plowright got well extremely well deserved applause, for this super trouper had really carried practically the entire show.
Now we came to the post finale songs: The company reprised Mamma Mia, and did it reasonably well. But their efforts on their own were far eclipsed by their leading lady, as Donna and The Dynamo’s returned to the stage, and Louise Plowright lead her group magnificently with Dancin’ Queen. As with Super Trouper earlier in the show, the backing singers were very much in the background. I thought the show would end there. But instead of exiting, the cast lined up for a second curtain call. Louise Plowright stepped forward, held up her right hand for attention, said something along the lines of “We’re going to do one more”, and the trio launched into Waterloo, in this they were joined by Donna’s three ex-boyfriends, Sam, Bill and Harry, also dressed in 70’s style outfits. This seemed rather too over the top, the number began to look quite ridiculous. Its one saving grace, however, is Louise Plowright, she is just so sincerely enthusiastic about what she is doing that the audience could not help but enjoy her performance, no matter what the rest of the production was like.
Well, with the notable exception of Louise Plowright, I did not find the production as energy packed second time round. There were certainly areas where it wasn’t as well acted, there were places where it was as good as it had been before, a few parts of it were actually improved. Ultimately I felt that: Amanda Harrison, Haley Tamaddon, Paul Baseleigh, Peter Forbes, Rohan Tickell, Simon Slater and Andy Couchman were largely fine in their roles, and in general of a reasonably similar standard to their Cast 2 counterparts. I liked Julie Atherton’s Sophie a great deal; therefore I found it hard to watch Amanda Salmon’s portrayal. Ultimately although Julia Atherton was a more likeable Sophie, and convincing by virtue of getting the audience very definitely on her side, I think that Amanda Salmon actually acts the part more convincingly. Much as I liked Gareth Bryn’s Sky, I thought Raza Jaffrey played him even better, and is someone to watch. Certainly he was one of the few performers who actually stood out to any extent. In the role of Pepper, I did not find Adam C Booth as good as Andrew Prosser had been, however, I do feel his performance almost certainly suffered from having to partner Lesley Coleman. With more encouraging partner his performance surely have been much better. Lesley Nicol’s performance suffered similar problems, although in her case, it was that lacking her usual sparring-partner and natural counter-balance she went a bit too far.
As for Lesley Coleman, I was quite prepared to be open-minded, because some of the role’s previous inhabitants are clearly very hard acts to follow, not least because few actresses have such an abundance of stage presonce, as Plowright and Gold do. Obviously no actress will interpret a character exactly the same way as another, indeed there is no single right way to interpret a character. However, I felt that her making Tanya so stiff and thinking she was a cut above the rest, was wrong. Would Donna really have had a ‘best friend’ like that? I think not. That interpretation spoilt whole her performance, her singing is adequate, and her diction actually quite passable. It just seems such a shame that a character originated by Louise Plowright should have been reduced to this.
One thing that stuck in my mind from the previous time I saw the show that has not changed a bit, is what a fine leading lady Louise Plowright, is. I am very glad I had the luck to see the show with her performing in it again. When she’s got her name in lights, She’ll sing and she’ll dance she’ll take any chance, just to get the show across. In this show she really is The Winner who takes it all, no matter what her co-stars performances are like. She is commanding, but capable of adapting her performance according to the capabilities of her fellow actors. With her sheer enthusiasm there is nothing remotely auto-pilot about her performance. When necessary this super trouper can rise above the others and carry the show, however, if they are good enough she will share the spotlight with them, but is still very much in command, for they cannot steal a scene from her. Admittedly, having played a supporting role in the original production, she knows the show better than most. One might say that this show (her West End debut) has been good to her. But I think she has been good to this show, and done more to ensure it’s success than any other actor in it, when she’s at its head how lucky can this show get? Louise Plowright is a real winner in Mamma Mia.
To read the review of the first time I saw Mamma Mia, please click here