Monday night and the lights are off. Or at least they should be, I’ve got work in the morning. Except, it’s 11pm and I’m in a Greek Taverna (actually a sweltering room in the O2 in London) throwing shapes to Dancing Queen with about 500 strangers.
I’m at Mamma Mia! The Party, a four-hour blowout paean to those astonishingly inextinguishable Swedish pop gods, ABBA. It’s almost 40 years since the sequin-flared mob broke up (band and marriages); 20 years since the musical launched; 11 since the film gave the world Pierce Brosnan’s singing voice, which had fans shouting “SOS”.
MMTP is essentially another chance to set ABBA’s back catalogue to a (functionally irrelevant) story that has as many twists as a breadstick. But we’re not here for well-scripted dialogue; most ABBA fans watching the film would’ve longed to be there on the sunny Greek island, singing and dancing with an implausibly attractive pan-European and American cast.
We might not have Skopelos, but we’ve got the Greenwich Peninsula, and we’re bloody well going to have a good night, even if it’s a drizzly autumn Monday. The problem, however, is that it’s an immersive experience, and I hate immersive experiences – forced, awkward interaction that generally stymies a show’s progression.
On the other hand, I love ABBA, and I don’t care who knows. Swedish-accented, English-language, European-folk inspired pop, rock, disco and the most powerful of ballads, with killer driving basslines – count me in. I’ve been to three ABBA nights in the past year and, at 27, feel old when I do. The ABBA phenomenon isn’t going anywhere in a hurry.
“Leave the bags behind, there’ll be lots of dancing and singing,” says the bouncer. “Kalispera” offer the waiters as we enter the taverna. Taverna is pushing it: it’s practically a full-blown village. Vines and ivy hang from the rooftops; a fountain sits in the centre; it’s a multicoloured kaleidoscope of faux-Greek fun. A taverna on steroids, or perhaps acid.
“I do feel like I’ve been transported to another place,” says my buddy, Jack, 26. "At least, it doesn't feel like the O2." We are seated to a communal table with a frustratingly restricted view of the night's proceedings, stuck behind a giant pillar which, while adding to the look, means we miss half the action.
Part restaurant, part West End show, part disco, the night kicks off with starters. The food is hit and miss: spanakopita (spinach and cheese filo pastry pie) is delicious; a Greek salad fresh, though weirdly topped with basil. While the tzatziki was just right, I couldn’t finish my taramasalata (don’t go wasting your emulsion?).
But let’s face it, food is the supporting cast – as are the waiters, who get fully involved in the singsong, at times in lovably amateurish fashion. With the thudding sound of an airplane the night kicks off properly as the story, which unfolds mostly by the fountain, takes place. Even more than in the films, the story – different from the original but, in many ways, the same – is a mere backdrop to getting us singing. Essentially, a young bartender from Dover wants to get hitched to the Greek taverna-owner’s daughter; her granny is less keen.
With the big hits saved for the second and third act, it’s time for a break – the main course, soundtracked by Zorba the Greek, of course. The lamb is dry in parts, tender where fatty. Beef flank is soft with an almost pastrami-like flavour. Courgette in a deep, funky tomato sauce is superb, while the cracked wheat is refreshing if a bit bland. Feeding 500 people in a half-hour window is a tough gig, and by this time we’ve all had enough wine and ouzo not to pay much notice.
The second act is frankly barmy, and I loved it. It’s short and packed with some of ABBA’s finest tunes. After Mamma Mia, re-purposed as a song about the chef’s battle with smoking (“How can I resist you?”; “My my, just how much I’ve missed you”), the main romantic arc occurs.
The lights go out, an acrobat emerges from the fountain like the Lady of the Lake, waiters dress up like the lovechild of Poseidon and a lucha libre fighter – like I said, Greek taverna on acid. The emotional climax features a stunning rendition of The Winner Takes It All – to my mind, the best musical performance of the night, sung beautifully by Julia Imbach as Konstantina, the taverna-owner's daughter. “What a bloody roller coaster,” gasps Jack.
Which leaves act three, the party. A catwalk is swiftly erected as the cast switch into full ABBA regalia and chairs and tables are removed. I Have A Dream, a throwback to Swedish folk music, is turned into a Greek dance accompanied by accordion and bouzouki, with 500 participants. Then the band runs through the big hits (Does Your Mother Know, Gimme Gimme Gimme, Dancing Queen and more), in what feels a lot like a wedding party.
With tickets starting from £135 (for food, a welcome drink and the show), it's pricey, and evidence of the remarkable pull of ABBA. As Bjorn Ulvaeus explained to the Telegraph last week, you’ll struggle to get a meal, a West End show and a disco for that price in London. “Here you just pay for all three in one.” Having run successfully in Stockholm for four years, there’s no doubt it’ll succeed in London too; the insatiable appetite for ABBA is certainly there.
And the taverna’s guests were left dazzled. “It’s brilliant, fantastic,” said Tracey Kelly, 52, from Kent. “The food, the atmosphere, there’s a good variety, they engage with the audience, and you meet nice friends. The food has been really nice, though the meat could’ve been hotter.” Paige Gilder, 26, also from Kent, agrees. “It was absolutely amazing. The atmosphere is amazing, the decor is brilliant, the food was really nice.”
But why do young and old (the average age was around 40, slightly skewed towards women), keep coming back to ABBA? “They’re just legends,” offers Kelly. “They’ll be around for years and years. Their songs capture a large age range. They’re fabulous.” Gilder agrees: “It’s just good catchy songs, easy listening. I grew up with it.”
I had a rollicking time at MMTP. The food might not be anything to shout about; the storyline is basic. Jokes focus too much on stereotypes about broken crockery and angry grandmothers – “I’m Greek, economics was never our big thing,” is a typical one-liner. The final disco is a rushed medley. “It was over before it started,” complains Jack. More suited to a Friday night, perhaps, than a Monday.
Yet the crowds will keep coming back, a testament to the crowd-pleasing genius of ABBA, to which all you can say is: thank you for the music.