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Culture, Theatre

Mamma Mia! is a must-see at New Theatre Oxford

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“We loved the glorious campness and bawdy humour.”
mamma mia

We came, we saw, we sang, we danced. MAMMA MIA! is at the New Theatre in Oxford until 31 December and we whole-heartedly recommend putting winter on hold for a couple of hours and indulging in what is arguably the greatest musical of modern times.

With some fabulous leads – aided and abetted by a jubilantly diverse ensemble – clever staging and some incredible set pieces, the entire show is a triumph and we defy anyone to remain unmoved by the sheer joy that fills the stage. Special mention goes to Donna and the Dynamos, with Helen Anker as Tanya and Nicky Swift as Rosie. However it is Sara Poyzer’s Donna who shines out. The pipes on that woman filled the packed auditorium and she had the audience eating out of her hand.

We loved the glorious campness and bawdy humour. Tanya’s teasing of Pepper (James Willoughby Moore) was worthy of the great Baranski, and was matched by a raunchy and rambunctious Take a Chance on Me from Rosie with Bill (Phil Corbitt).

So infectious, it was a struggle to stay seated, so thank you for the music and thank you for a dazzling finale encore which allowed the audience to get up and join the fun.

*****

MAMMA MIA! was created and produced by Judy Craymer CBE. Reviews Editor of The Stage magazine, Sam Marlowe, interviewed her in advance of this national tour of her best-loved production.

MAMMA MIA! has established its place in theatre history – so it’s almost hard to believe that right up until its very first opening night in 1999 at the Prince Edward Theatre in London’s West End, many theatre pundits were anticipating a flop. Looking back, Judy Craymer chuckles at the nail-biting uncertainty that surrounded that world premiere. “A lot of people doubted us – they just couldn’t get their heads around it. They were constantly asking me who was going to play Frida and Agnetha.” Even ABBA songsmiths Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus had their doubts: “They said, OK Judy, it’ll be a small show, just in London, and if it doesn’t work it’ll close.” They needn’t have worried. Together with writer Catherine Johnson and director Phyllida Lloyd, Craymer had achieved a landmark theatrical triumph with blockbuster, cross-generational appeal, that would delight Abba’s loyal fans and win them legions of new ones.

This was, though, no overnight feat – the show had a long gestation. Craymer, who trained at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama in stage management, was working in the production office of musical-theatre royalty Tim Rice in the early 1980s when she first conceived of the idea. Rice was in the throes of writing Chess, his collaboration with Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. Spending so much time in their company, she rediscovered their music. “I listened to their songs with a whole different ear, having met the guys. I’d play them over and over again on my cassette player, and I was fascinated that Björn had written these lyrics. They take you on a journey...They spoke to me as theatre songs. You’d be lucky to have two like that in a musical, let alone 20. So, I started thinking about how to turn them into narrative.”

She felt sure that, because the music was held in such affection, it should be “weddings, holidays, something celebratory, because everyone listens to ABBA in a happy moment”. She had a meeting with Catherine Johnson who suggested centering the story on a mother and daughter. Craymer knew at once she’d found the right formula. “We were both penniless, Catherine was a single mum,” she recalls. “I only had about £1,000, so I said, I’ll pay you £500 now, and £500 when you’ve written it.” The next step was a meeting at Ulvaeus’ home in Henley-on-Thames – “and we couldn’t afford the train fare! It was all very hairy, but somehow we did it. And I introduced Björn to Catherine and she was too shy to pitch the idea, so I had to – and then I had to stop her stealing the soap from his bathroom as a souvenir.

Lloyd, who came on board as Director, shared their passion, and together the trio put together a female-led show full of joyous romance and fierce mother-daughter affection: an exuberant matrimonial comedy set on an idyllic Greek island, with a playful nod to the family dramas of classical tragedy. It’s the strength of that narrative, Craymer believes, that sets MAMMA MIA! apart from other ‘jukebox shows’: “I like to think that MAMMA MIA! raised the bar.”

That universal appeal has seen the show play to packed houses around the world. Hollywood quickly wanted in on the act, and Craymer found herself fielding eager calls from several studios. There was some pressure to consider a younger star for the leading role of mum Donna, but Craymer held out for the team’s original vision, and for her ambitious dream casting; none other than Meryl Streep, who leapt at the chance. It was a coup Craymer repeated with the film’s sequel, in which Cher delivers a magnificent diva turn as Donna’s mother. The icon had, according to Craymer, already been to see the show twice in London, where she danced in the aisle; after making the film, she went on to record her own album of ABBA covers.

"Over the last 20 years, there have been so many white-knuckle rides,” Craymer reflects and she’s still up for more: even during the 2020 lockdown, she was busily planning for a third MAMMA MIA! movie. “I wanted something to cheer us all up!” she laughs. “It’s something I have in my sights. I think there’s a trilogy there”

And in the meantime? “I’m really excited that we are taking MAMMA MIA! on tour around the UK once again, visiting The New Theatre in Oxford in December. We look forward to welcoming new audiences, as well as those that have seen it before”.

Mamma Mia will be onstage at The New Theatre, Oxford from 6-31 December. Tickets and further information are available at atgtickets.com

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