Review: Mamma Mia at Riverside Theatres

By Sasha Meaney


You can not find a funner jukebox musical than Mamma Mia. It’s a celebration of ABBA at its most wholesome and ridiculous. Without being a biopic, the show encapsulates so much of what their songs were: heartfelt storytelling disguised as bangers. Packemin Productions current season of Mamma Mia delivers us that emphasised ‘banger’, entertaining its audience with high energy musical numbers and a tremendous cast.


Mamma Mia tells the story of a single mother Donna who has raised her daughter Sophie to be equal parts independent and loving. The two embrace each other’s lives and growing up stories, in a way that is rarely depicted in other parent-child relationships, and is notably positive about female sexuality. What could easily have been a Lifetime special sob story is presented with extravagant confidence and humour that relies heavily on the audience to buy into the silliness. The book can feel like it’s written solely to move the plot to the next ABBA hit, but the chemistry amongst the cast keeps the audience in stitches.


This fun is delivered to us primarily by the ensemble, and some unreal choreography by Sally Dashwood. The show didn’t start till those extra characters and details of life, walked on stage playing friends, locals and the bridal party. The ensemble throws themselves into the dance routines, which have been superbly timed and choreographed. The end of Act 1, from Dancing Queen to the close of an epic Voulez Vous, is jaw droppingly executed. The flow of the show is enabled by a slick and versatile set. It’s complemented by an Instagram worthy sunset, and on brand holiday props. I simply must have one of those floaties on wheels that the cast rolls out with in “Lay All Your Love On Me.”


Louise Symes plays a very sincere Donna, a restrained performance that pays off when she lets loose in “The Winner Takes it All”. This genuine tone is maintained by Courtney Bell as Sophie, who is sweet and flirty. The intimacy between the characters is harder to capture on stage than audiences might have come to expect from the movie, but it comes through subtly particularly towards the close of the show.


The real powerhouse love in this revival are the friendships. Donna’s firecracker friends Tanya, Debora Krizak, and Rosie, Rachael Gillfeather, steal every scene they’re in. The brief moments we see Sophie’s friends Ali, Megan Stack, and Lisa, Kira Leiva, make me wish there was more material written for them. They spearhead the ensemble with absolute gusto. The golden girls are matched by Donna’s ghosts of boyfriends past, Sam, Bill and Harry played respectively by Scott Irwin, Mark Simpson and Blake Erickson. Each of these actors have a challenge to face (which I always find distracting when musicals are turned into movies) as the Hollywood stars who previously played the roles have left a giant imprint on this show and it’s comedic timing. However, they exceed expectations. Allowing the actors to play in their natural accents and throw in Aussie-isms helps carve them out as a fresh cast, a courtesy that could have been extended to more of the bridal party. And thank god this time each of the men can sing!


Mamma Mia is at its best when it’s over the top enthusiastic. The leads have stunning voices, but watching them joke around carries the show better than perfect notes. The closing numbers of each act are the highlights of the show and are unashamedly both medleys of karaoke hits, sparkly flares and punchy dancing. Sure you can watch a tribute band and get that for two hours straight - but the show's camaraderie, particularly amongst the female characters, really brings out the hidden gems in ABBA’s lyrics. The bows had the audience on their feet and belting out Waterloo. This is not the place for your cynicism or eye rolling. Just for one blissful evening - get into it. Packemin’s Mamma Mia is exuberantly escapist, and the perfect kick into the weekend.


Photo Credit: Grant Leslie


All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.

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