ABBA MANIA on London’s West End is the pure, uncomplicated joy we need after a long, dark lockdown

JoJo Desmond and Rhiannon Porter of ABBA MANIA, in costume while singing against one another's backs

London’s West End, a beacon of the city’s tourists, has for months seen its lights dimmed and doors shuttered.

The darkened Shaftesbury Theatre that once greeted countless tourists eager to pound a pint on the way to Soho quickly became a reminder of just how much the city lost during the pandemic.

But on Friday (21 May), the blinking of thermometer guns, the clinking of plastic pint cups and the woos of audience members filled the Shaftesbury Theatre. The stage lights were back on – and ABBA MANIA was the reason for it.

“ABBA MANIA” might bring to mind your Minion meme-sharing aunt in a floral dress woozily dancing at your cousin’s wedding reception. But as coronavirus restrictions in the city eased, ABBA MANIA meant one thing and one thing only: pure, uncomplicated joy.

People’s brains are hardwired to love Abba. It’s a legal obligation. The 1974 Eurovision legends wear funky flares and glittering capes while singing about dancing queens and it being half-past 12 for some reason all to jingly upbeat synths. 

So can a tribute act come close to capturing the cheesy glamour? You bet.

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ABBA MANIA itself was last seen in London nearly two decades ago. Formed in 1999, it’s played to more than three million people across 30 countries.

Edward Handoll and Loucas Hajiantoni of ABBA MANIA. (Mark Senior)

And in its triumphant return to the West End, the two-hour-long tribute act sees Eurovision and venerable theatre legends step into the very, very high platform boots of the original Swedish pop quartet and recreate the band’s last concert together.

Eurovision: You Decide 2018 finalist Rhiannon Porter assumes the role of Agnetha Fältskog, the soprano singer with a halo of blonde hair. JoJo Desmond (Swan Lake) played the part of seductive singer Anni-Frid Lyngstad. 

While Edward Handoll and Loucas Hajiantoni portray groovy guitarist Björn Ulvaeus and pianist Benny Andersson respectively.

They’re playing from one of pop’s most sprawling and relentlessly perky songbooks here. So it’s no surprise that by the fourth song, the band were already calling on a socially distanced and still sober audience of more chairs than people to get up and dance.

That’s a big ask in tight-lipped Britain. But as much as the audience was distanced, they were united as everyone twirled, jived, bounced, waved their arms and wooed throughout – no doubt relieved to be in a theatre once more.

The cast of ABBA MANIA. (Mark Senior)

After all, following a year of counting bedroom walls and talking to plants pots, hearing Porter and Desmond belt out “all I do is eat and sleep and sing” during “Super Trouper” suddenly becomes so, so much more relatable.

The foursome tossed off so many of Abba’s greatest hits: “Waterloo”, “The Winner Takes It Al'”, “Voulez-Vous”, “Money, Money, Money” and “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)”.

And each time, the foursome seamlessly sweet-talk a brittle crowd so used to being vertical in bed to get up and dance before capping the night off with a touching rendition of “The Winner Takes It All”.

As the audience spilt out of the theatre after the curtain call, smiles could be seen from all. For some, it was the first time they had been out in weeks. Others, months.

ABBA MANIA, for a Britain so badly beaten down by the virus, is the perfect way to ease back into that long-fabled sense of normality. That, or it’ll make you leap on your phone on the way back home to buy a pair of lycra trousers.

One of the two.

ABBA MANIA is at the Shaftesbury Theatre 21 May to 6 June. Tickets can be found via Love Theatre or London Theatre Direct, while UK tour tickets are available from ATG Tickets.

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