22nd March 2000 Prince Edward Theatre
Review by Emma Shane © April 2000
I am not all that "in" to ABBA, nor do I tend to go for modern musicals. However, Mamma Mia is said to be one of the hottest tickets in town. I saw the show two days after its big (after one year) cast change around. Some cast members, including Louise Plowright, were in the original cast, but now play different roles. Others were newcomers to the show, and among them several stand out.
The overture is played loudly by The Band, conducted by Martin Lowe., too loudly I felt, but it is in keeping with the show’s style, 70’s pop music, so be it. The show is set on a little island in Greece in 1999. It opens with Sophie Sheriden, an excellent portrayal by incoming cast member Julie Atherton in her West End debut, alone on the stage, posting letters to three men: Harry Bright, Bill Austin and Sam Carmichael. She then proceeds to sing I Have A Dream. She has a pleasant voice, and the song is surprisingly sweet. Her reverie is interrupted by the arrival of two backpack clad friends, Ali and Lisa, played very well by Melissa Gibson and Gail Mckinnon, clambering over the scenery. It is the day before Sophie’s wedding, and as they say "We couldn’t let you get married without your bridesmaids." Sophie informs her friends that she needs their help, for she has invited her Dad to her wedding. Did her mother finally tell her? No, as Sophie informs her friends, she found her Mum’s diary from 1979, the year Sophie was conceived. Sophie gets out the said diary and proceeds to read aloud to her friends three entries all starting with the words "What a night", in which her Mum, got a man to row her across to the little island, "one thing lead to another and dot dot dot." Not knowing which of these men is her father Sophie has invited them all to her wedding. Only, without her mother’s knowledge, and she pretended that the invitations were from her Mum. She wants her Dad to walk her down the aisle, but first she has to find out which one he is, she’s got 24 hours in which to do it. Sophie and her two friends sing Honey Honey. They put the number across with enthusiasm.
Towards the end of the number the scene shifters swing the set round, so that we are now in the hallway of Sophie’s home. Two woman, one short and one tall enter, dragging luggage with them. The tall one is the more distinctive, and authoritative of the two, and speaks first, she is dressed in white trousers, with a black and white top, she has short curly chestnut hair and a distinctive face. This is Tanya, played by Louise Gold; She is accompanied by Rosie, played by Lesley Nicol. It seems that back in the 1970’s Tanya and Rosie had, along with Sophie’s mother Donna, been an all girl band, called Donna And The Dynamo’s. It is not long before Donna, Mamma Mia herself, brilliantly played by Louise Plowright, enters to greet her two old fellow troupers. She introduces them to Sky, Sophie’s fiancé, very well played by Gareth Bryn, and her staff Pepper and Eddie, played by Andrew Prosser and Simon Coulthard, who both act well enough. Soon after Sophie too comes in to greet Aunty Rosie, and Aunty Tanya. The thrice married Tanya soon proves to be something of a wise-cracker, most smash shows need one, and who better than an actress of Louise Gold’s calibre to fulfil this function. The three dynamo’s get to reminiscing about the old days, and how everything could have been different, and before very long they are leading the company with the song Money, Money, Money. This song set a trend for the rest of the show. It was a great production number, very well performed by the company, but what stood out about the number was the performance and dancing, not the singing. All the company prove to be fine dancers, and Louise Gold, who is not often noted for her dancing, shows herself to be quite capable of keeping up with the ensemble.
Following this number the company at large exits, many of them coming down off the stage and exiting via the under-stage doors. Into the deserted hallway come three men, also dragging luggage with them. These, as one might expect, are: Harry Bright, Bill Austin and Sam Carmichael, portrayed quite as convincingly as such characters might be, by Craig Pinder, Nicolas Colicos and Michael Simkins. They are met by Spohie, who explains that she invited them, without her Mum’s knowledge, to her wedding, and she wants it to be a surprise for her Mum "who is always talking about the old days". The respectable Harry, who once had a wilder side, picks up a guitar lying nearby, recognises it as the one he bought Donna for £10, and the four of them sing Thank You For The Music. Sophie asks the men to pretend to have come here on a holiday or something, because her "Mum has got herself in a right state about this wedding" so she does not want to mention "unexpected guests". With that, having given them their room keys, Sophie exits and a few moments later Donna enters. She is wearing blue dungarees, and a workman’s apron and carrying a drill, with which she proceeds to fix a door. She is to say the, least surprised to find her three ex-boyfriends here on the island. And not at all pleased. After all she was left to bring up Sophie alone. The four of them sing the title song Mamma Mia.
The next scene takes place in a bedroom. Rosie is lying on the bed, as Tanya enters with an inflatable mattress that she is trying to blow up, and manages to look quite comical while doing, "Blow don’t suck" yells Rosie. Tanya is wearing a white button through sleeveless dress, outlined in blue, Though the skirt of her dress is quite long, it has slits at the sides and centres, with the result that when she is moving around she is frequently showing off her great legs. She wears such skeletal sandals one might almost have thought she were barefoot (except that barefoot is not allowed on the stage of the Prince Edward Theatre). Going over to a trunk she gets out a tube of sun cream and applies it to her bare arms. She joins Rosie on the bed, to whom she hands the sun cream, while she continues to rub it well into her arms. While they are doing this they talk, about various things including children. Tanya’s comments on that subject "Children can be such a burden, little sods." struck one as particularly funny, in a "don’t believe a word of it" kind of a way, to anyone who had just read her resume in the programme. Tanya slips off the bed, possibly to put the sun cream back. Suddenly Rosie gives a shriek. "Oh get it out, get it out" says Tanya excitedly. Reaching under the bed Rosie has found an old trunk of costumes from their band, and a poster! The two women get out the poster and admire it "Weren’t we young!” remarks Tanya.
A downcast Donna enters, dejected by the fact that her three ex-boyfriends, one of whom, she does not actually know which, is Sophie’s father, have all turned up. Tanya and Rosie try to cheer her up. They show her the poster, but she doesn’t want to know, and tears it up, saying "Oh get rid of it". They continue to try and cheer Donna up, by performing Chiquitita. Both of them sang well, of particular note was Louise Gold’s loud clear distinctive voice. They danced around the stage. Louise Gold proving to be quite a scene stealer. At one point Donna knelt at the front of the stage, while Tanya’s strong clever hands massaged her shoulders, shades of Anne Hart’s boxing steps while playing Dorothy in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. At another point, Tanya poured Donna a drink (she held the bottle in her right hand, so she could undo it’s screw cap with her left). Tanya suggests that they should do one of their old numbers at the hen night "Show Sophie what a groovy Mum she’s got". Donna is aghast at the idea, but Tanya and Rosie press the suggestion, with their song Dancing Queen. They dance about the stage, clamber onto a hamper – that did look funny, especially as Tanya would not get off it when Rosie tried to get on to it. Even Donna gets caught up a bit with the number, but it really belonged to Tanya and Rosie. In fact the number was dominated by Tanya, who quite overshadowed Rosie. But the interesting thing is it was not so much her singing as her dancing that did it! Louise Gold never ceases to amaze me. People say "oh she doesn’t dance", and yet in this number she really showed that she can. She even managed to sell a song more on the strength of her dancing than anything else! Perhaps part of it that she did it with such enthusiasm. But then, that is one of the great things about Louise Gold, she is a very enthusiastic performer. She really was a sight worth seeing. Her dancing in this production was quite extraordinary, especially to anyone who had read her resume.
The next scene was an outdoor one, between Sophie and her fiancée Sky. Sophie asks him to stick around, but his pals come to take him off Scuba Diving for his stag night, he and Sophie, accompanied by his pals sing Lay All Your Love On Me. For this number the men, unusually tap dance while wearing flippers, which is surprisingly effective.
Now it is time for Sophie’s Hen night, the guests, including Donna’s three ex-boyfriends are assembled on the dance floor. Suddenly over the tannoy booms Tanya’s loud clear tones, announcing that "For one night, and one night only, it’s Donna And The Dynamo’s in all their wrinkly glory". "Speak for yourself" interjects Donna, undaunted Tanya continues "And they are just going to do one number, that’s all we’ve got breathe for!". A door on the left-hand set opens to reveal Donna followed by Rosie and Tanya, dressed in silver coloured seventies style jump suits, with platform boots (or shoes - actually it was only Tanya who wore boots), and carrying chunky microphones (which look more like drills and hair dryers than microphones). They looked truly stunning, really, for three middle-aged women quite amazing. Donna and Tanya both prove to have quite svelte figures. They perform the number Super Trouper, and perform it stunningly, like the super troupers that they are. Rosie gets rather overshadowed by the other two, all eyes are on the two taller women. Indeed, Rosie seems to spend a sizable amount of time in this show getting overshadowed by the other two, especially when they hug over her head. I am not saying that Lesley Nicol is not a good performer, for she is certainly a reasonable actress, but somehow she seemed quite in the background compared to the two Louise’s, Plowright and Gold.
This was followed by the ensemble singing Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie, which was fun enough, while Sophie continues in her quest, by talking to each of her three possible Dad’s in turn, asking them about their relationship with her mother. This ends up with her singing The Name Of The Game, and again Julie Atherton proves to be a fine singer, I am sure we shall be hearing more of her in years to come.
Rosie and Tanya return to join in the act one finale, Voulez Vous. They have shed their 70’s jump suits and appear in ordinary clothes, in Tanya’s case a bright blue short sun dress. One of the younger men, Pepper, played by Andrew Prosser, is clearly quite interested in Tanya, and dances very seductively with her. It is seductive on both parts, they are forever running up onto the concrete steps by the left-hand set door, to dance in the doorway in a very suggestive way. Again the mesmerizing thing here is Tanya’s dancing I had no idea Louise Gold was so capable of this sort of thing. True we knew she was stage school trained, but her performance was quite unlike any dancing performance I had seen her do before. During this number, especially, the cast frequently raise their arms above their heads, in a 70’s pop style, and it has to be said that Louise Gold did this higher, for longer, and with more authority than anyone else, but then she is accustomed to working with her arms above her head.
The act concluded with each of Sophie’s three possible fathers realising why they had been invited, and offering to walk Sophie down the aisle. Act 1 had been totally amazing. I went into the interval stunned.
Act 2 was just as stunning. However, it started badly, with a dream-sequence, a night-mare of Sophie’s, in which all three of her possible Dad’s come to get her. The number was Under Attack, and its production was not that great. The result of this nightmare is that Sophie ends up sleepwalking, and finds herself in the kitchen at six in the morning. Donna enters, and realises Sophie has been sleep walking again (she always used to do that when she was little, whenever she was ill or stressed), and so asks her what is the matter. She suggests that the wedding could be cancelled easily. Sophie exits leaving Donna to sing One Of Us. Here Louise Plowright suddenly proves to have a sweet voice. It is one of the show’s more touching songs, and was nicely sung.
She is rudely interrupted by the arrival of Sky, Pepper and Eddie, all clearly the worse for a drink. Clattering about rudely along with a variety of objects they have found in the cellar, including some bagpipes. She immediately sends Sky to wash and sober up. He is not going to marry her daughter smelling of alcohol. Of the other two, one is sent to see to the crockery and glasses for the wedding breakfast, while the other is sent to get his boat out, as her guests want to go out in it and go diving – it will keep them happy and out of the way. Then Harry enters, and spots his old drums on the table, "There’re for scaring off unwanted visitors,” Donna informs him. There is still some kind of spark between them, as along with the ensemble they duet S.O.S.
The next scene is another Morning-after-the-night-before scene, this time out of doors. As the scene shifters turned the set, we see, lying stretched out on a stone seat the body of a woman, she is wearing a bright green kimono (with a white pattern) and sun glasses, but the most striking thing is her shock of red curls…who else but Tanya! Pepper comes up. Both of them are hung over. Tanya gets up, and, as her kimono is untied we see she is also wearing a bright pink swimming costume. Her figure is that of a fit, relatively slimish, middle-aged woman. She picks up a white basket and goes to leave. He tries to seduce her. She tries to ward him off, playfully swing her basket into his face, and saying "I’m old enough to be your mother!" He continues to try to go for her, and she launches into a song, Does Your Mother Know ? It was a bit hard to recognise the song. For though her voice is strong and distinctive, it seemed to be more like another instrument in the orchestra than anything else. This sort of show simply does not have numbers requiring Louise Gold’s particular brand of vocal-acrobatics. Again, deprived of using her glorious voice to sell the song, it was her movement and acting that really put the number across. Sam enters, wondering "What does a father do at his daughter’s wedding?” He asks the thrice-married Tanya, who replies sharply "generally he pays, but mine drew the line at number three." Sam asks if her father used to say anything to her on her wedding day, she replies "He used to say," (she drops into a cockney accent at this point) "Don’t worry love, I know a good lawyer" and then adds "But why are we talking about my Dad?" Tanya decides to exit, and announces "Come on, we’ve got some touching up to do", it seems she has to do her make-up. Sophie enters, and Sam tries to make her think seriously about whether she really wants to get married, as these things don’t always work out. Sam sings Knowing Me Knowing You. He can sing well enough.
The next scene takes place in Donna’s room, She is alone trying to get dressed, when Harry enters. He offers her a cheque to help with the cost of the wedding, Donna exclaims "There’s enough her for four weddings, and a funeral!" The gesture however loosens Donna’s severity, they begin to reminisce about old times, and duet Our Last Summer (hence the character’s name being Harry) they seem attracted to each other. He leaves. The Sophie enters, with her Wedding Dress. Donna asks if Ali and Lisa are around to help her with it. They are, but Sophie would like her Mum to help her, so she does, singing Slipping Through My Fingers. Louise Plowright again handles this song with feeling, and it comes across very pleasantly. With Donna’s assistance Sophie "Hops in" to her Wedding Dress, and asks her Mum to walk her down the aisle. After she leaves, anther of those three men enters, and offers to walk Sophie down the aisle, but is rebuffed by Donna with Winner Takes It All, a striking song, and stunningly handled by Louise Plowright, who is a real winner singing it.
It is nearly time for the wedding, the next scene finds Rosie in the room where it is to take place, with Bill. He offers himself to her. This scene was largely carried by Lesley Nicol, and it was interesting in that she is good enough, indeed an excellent comic-actress, but she seemed somehow a trifle out-of-place. She is a reasonable actress, but compared to her fellow Dynamos, the two Louise’s, she seemed somewhat to lack their command of the stage, or perhaps it was just that her singing was not as good as theirs. I had not really noticed that until this scene, mainly, I think, because in all the other scenes she had been in, had involved Tanya, consequently of the pair of them, it had been Tanya who dominated, especially during the musical numbers.
It was not very long before the others began to arrive. Among them Donna and Tanya, wearing large white hats. Tanya was carrying a box of paper handkerchiefs, which she proceeded to hand out to her two friends. These proved to be quite useful, since, it is a classic thing for people to cry at weddings, on this occasion it was Tanya who seemed to have been moved to tears at a solemn moment (although it is possible those tears could have been a cover for a corpsing actress, and if they were a cover then they were a very effective one, for I am really not sure if they were or not). With the guests assembled Donna walks down the aisle with Sophie, while Ali and Lisa follow holding her train. The Preacher, James Barron, welcomes everyone, especially: Sky, Sophie and Donna who represents Sophie’s family. And then Donna adds "and welcome to to Sophie’s Dad." She reveals that Sophie’s father is somewhere in the congregation. Sophie says that she knows that, because she invited him. Donna asks her how she could have done that since "I don’t know which one of them it is!" I think it was Harry, who speaks for all three when he says how glad he is to have "even a third of Sophie", they can all be her father, she is like a daughter to all of them. Then it is Sophie’s turn to surprise, she turns to Sky and tells him that she has found out something about herself, she adds "lets not get married, you never really wanted a big wedding anyway". Thus Sophie and Sky will go and live in sin. But in the finest tradition of the theatre (well this at least goes back to the 1936 Cole Porter musical Red Hot & Blue –Louise Gold starred in the Lost Musicals 1994 production of), the people now expect a wedding, so it is suggested that Donna herself get married, to Sam, the only man she ever really loved (at this point Tanya is apparently in tears). The entire company join forces urging Donna to do this, with the song I Do I Do I Do, halfway through, escorted by Tanya and Rosie Donna returns, in a simple white frock and says "I do".
It is nearly time for the finale. The next scene finds Sophie and Sky in ordinary clothes, with backpacks, leaving for the mainland. Sophie sings a reprise of I Have A Dream. Now comes the finale, the Orchestra Bows/Curtain calls. This, of course involves the entire company, most of whom are still dressed for the wedding, which caused one minor mishap, as Louise Gold, running on stage to take her place, dropped her hat in the middle of it, and thus had to stop running to retrieve the hat. As the cast came forward to take their bows half the audience was on its feet.
But the show was not quite over, after the bows Donna, Tanya and Rosie retreated, but the rest of the jolly company launched into an enthusiastic reprise of Mamma Mia. By now many more of the audience were on their feet clapping along. And then, after this the crowning moment, Donna And The Dynamo’s returned to the stage, once again in 70’s style jump suits, this time each woman had a jump suit with a slightly different colour (Tanya’s was orange, Rosie’s was red, and Donna’s was a greenish-yellow), and with Donna, Louise Plowright in the centre, and her backing singers, Tanya, Louise Gold, on her right, and Rosie, Lesley Nicol, on her left, reprised Dancing Queen, of course the rest of the company joined in, but that number was dominated by Donna And The Dynamos, in particular Louise’s Plowright and Gold. Finally they left the stage, and then the rest of the company departed to, leaving the orchestra to play out. The show ended with an announcement over the tannoy "Donna and the Dynamo’s have now left the building".
All the cast were brilliantly enthusiastic, and put the numbers across with great verve. Personally I was not that keen on the songs, but I enjoyed the production and the enthusiasm with which the company put them across was infectious. The ensemble comprised: Paul Basleigh, Simon Bishop, Peter Challis, Amanda Claire, Andy Couchman, Melissa Familly, Lori Haley Fox, Andrea Francis, Jye Frasca, Melissa Jacques, Stephen McGlynn, Leah-Sue Morland, Laura O’Day, Richard Pettyfer, Rebecca Seale, Nikki Shaw, Anne Smith, Tim Stanley and Gavin Wilkinson. They gave a consistently excellent performance, full of verve, indeed that is true of the entire company. Lesley Nicol and Louise Gold make a great double-act, not least because their comedy talents provide a counter-balance for each other; they make a great pair of sparring partners. Louise Plowright is a lead who knows how to use their strong support, while maintaining her leading lady’s command of the stage. If one has the delightfully irrepressible Louise Gold in a supporting role, then I cannot think of a better actress than Louise Plowright for the lead. Of the principals, there are three who really stand out namely: Louise Plowright – who makes a very worthy, high calibre, leading lady, well capable of commanding a stage and holding her own against any scene stealers, a true Winner who takes it all. Julie Atherton, a very talented newcomer whom I hope we shall witness a lot more in future musicals, and Louise Gold. The latter actress (last seen last October in Side By Side By Sondheim, while six months pregnant), according to her resume, has a young son (barely 2 months old) – talk about not wasting talent! for she certainly doesn’t. All the same, I really had no idea that this Super Trouper could be such a Dancing Queen!