We were fortunate enough to have tickets last weekend for the hugely anticipated ABBA Voyage concert. Does it live up to the hype as everyone’s favourite Eurovision band returns after a 40-year hiatus?
Here are my thoughts.
The expectations for ABBA Voyage have been every bit as high as for a new James Bond film or the recent Top Gun: Maverick. Maybe even higher.
A sense of expectation hangin’ in the airVoulez-Vous
After all, the band’s list of accolades is the stuff of legend. With estimated sales of 150 million records, they are the best-selling band of all time from continental Europe. In the UK, they have had nine number one singles and ten chart-topping albums. Their 1992 greatest hits compilation ABBA Gold recently passed the milestone of 1,000 consecutive weeks in the UK top 100.
Their music inspired a hit musical, Mamma Mia! It’s the sixth longest-running show ever in London’s West End and the ninth longest-running on Broadway. This in turn spawned two films which together have grossed over $1 billion worldwide. The second, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again!, marks the only time three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep has ever agreed to do a sequel.
Ever since the group split up in 1982, they had insisted they would never perform together again. Then suddenly last year they announced their first original songs for four decades. This was followed by news of a ground-breaking show that would feature the four band members, now all in their seventies, in the form of virtual avatars – or ABBAtars – of their younger selves.
ABBA Voyage’s London residency has already been extended to a full year. While the new album received a lukewarm reception, the critics’ reviews of the show have almost universally occupied a narrow range between excellent and giddily delirious.
So, yes, expectations were high. And not just because the show reportedly needs to generate an eye-watering $140 million in sales just to break even.
A unique setting
Real life rarely lives up to the hype. Top Gun: Maverick is a rare exception to this. And, pleasingly, the same is true of ABBA Voyage. While it doesn’t quite hit every mark, it meets and even exceeds expectations in enough respects to wash away the doubts I had going in.
Firstly, there’s the hexagonal(ish) ABBA Arena itself, a dedicated 3,000-person venue on the edge of London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. It’s directly opposite Pudding Mill Lane DLR station and a 20-minute walk from Stratford, which is served by the Jubilee and Central lines, the DLR and overground trains. So far, so good.
There isn’t a bad seat in the house. Three banks of seating angled to the stage flank a large standing area – dubbed the ‘dance floor’ – so everyone has a clear view. (Imagine three sides of a hexagon facing the stage.) Behind the stage is a 65-million pixel screen which I’d estimate is ten metres tall and 40 wide, with the ends extending out at an angle beyond the stage to draw the audience themselves into the show. 291 carefully placed speakers create a genuine sense of surround sound. And there are 500-plus moving lighting elements that extend both over and around the arena. All told, it creates an immersive, three-dimensional experience unlike any other I’ve ever seen.
Introducing the ABBAtars
At first glance, the setlist for ABBA Voyage seems a little odd. This is not just a greatest hits compilation or a reenactment of Mamma Mia! A few of the obvious hits and fan favourites are absent. (There’s no Money, Money, Money or Take A Chance On Me, for instance.) And opening the show with The Visitors and Hole In Your Soul is not a choice many fans would have expected.
Thematically, however, it works. You don’t fire your biggest guns first, particularly when everyone’s initial attention is on the ABBAtars rather than the actual music. This first pair of songs showcases them beautifully as they rise up from beneath the stage and start performing with a surprisingly kinetic fluidity. The four ABBAtars – projected onto a flat screen but three-dimensional to the naked eye – represent each performer as they appeared in their early thirties. They move around, interact and even touch just as their real-life equivalents would. Their hair moves and their sequinned costumes shimmer and reflect light realistically.
It’s breathtaking to observe even the life-sized figures from a distance, but to also see them projected onto the giant screen speaks to just how life-like they are. Agnetha and Frida’s original dance moves are faithfully reproduced. An overhead shot shows Benny’s de-aged face and his digitised fingers dancing fluently over the keyboard. It’s enough to render the music itself almost redundant as you take in visual effects that make even recent Marvel films look dated.
On the big screen
Voyage isn’t a one-tricky pony, though. For Knowing Me, Knowing You, the ABBAtars don’t appear at all as the performance plays out solely on the giant screen. It’s employed here to maximum effect, stretching out beyond the confines of the stage into the arena. A neat visual effect makes you feel like you’re in the centre of a hall of mirrors surrounded by rotating images of the group. It’s simple but stunning.
I was initially dubious about these screen-only songs, but they won me over. Yes, at times it feels like you are just watching a gigantic promo video. Maybe they won’t be to everyone’s liking. But they make fantastic use of the screen and they do add an additional dimension to the experience. One transition in particular, when the screen-led Lay All Your Love On Me segues into the ABBAtar-focussed Summer Night City, is quite beautiful.
Artifice and reality
A lot of effort has gone into making the show feel as real as possible. Each band member has a segment where they individually speak to the audience, just as they might do at a live gig. At one point, Benny stumbles slightly over his words, imbuing his digital self with a sense of human imperfection. There are transitions when the band are ‘off-stage’ supposedly effecting physical rather than virtual costume changes.
It’s not perfect, of course. The set pauses after each joke never quite match up with the audience reaction, which jars slightly. But these small touches of reality amongst all the artifice are surprisingly effective and help sustain the illusion.
Obviously, the vocal performances are pre-recorded, but there’s still a sense of this being a real show thanks to a live ten-piece band. They play the musical tracks and provide backing vocals throughout. (Trivia: one of the keyboardists is Victoria Hesketh, who twice made the top 20 in 2009 as her alter ego Little Boots.) Often they’re obscured and dimly lit off to the side of the stage, but they too get their moment in the spotlight as the feature performers on Does Your Mother Know. It’s a nice touch.
Not perfect, but with the perfect finish
What doesn’t work? Surprisingly little.
The ABBAtars are astonishingly realistic in recreating a young Agnetha, Benny, Bjorn and Anni-Frid. Occasionally, the illusion fractures slightly in close-ups on the giant screen. Some movements don’t feel 100% organic – not jerky, rather overly smooth. Facial reproduction lacks texture at times and the skin tones are a little too perfect. However, these flaws are few and far in between. Overall, even when blown up to ten-metre height, the ABBAtar technology stands up to close scrutiny.
Other gripes? The Studio Ghibli-esque animated interludes jarred somewhat. There’s a story in there somewhere that relates to some mythical quest, but my attention wandered. And the two back-to-back tracks from the Voyage album – Don’t Shut Me Down and the more reflective I Still Have Faith In You – bring the party mood crashing down. They feel included out of a sense of obligation rather than aesthetic, apologetically occupying the pause for breath before the final run of mega-hits.
However, the final trio of songs delivers the desired punch. It starts with Waterloo, which plays over archive footage from 1974, and finishes with Thank You For The Music and Dancing Queen. This is quintessential ABBA which had everyone on their feet singing, dancing and swaying along – proper crowd-pleasing stuff.
Who can live without it?
I ask in all honesty
What would life be?
Without a song or a dance, what are we?Thank You For The Music
The 90-minute set concludes with an encore of The Winner Takes It All, followed by an ABBAtar appearance by the four band members as they look today. It’s the perfect song to sum up the ABBA Voyage experience: a bitter-sweet, poignant track, not a dance-floor filler, with simple yet deep lyrics.
The finale settles any lingering doubts. For a large portion of my childhood, ABBA were the kings and queens of European pop. Now, 40 years on, they’re back to reclaim their throne.
ABBA Voyage is a triumphant return for a band who lived on in the hearts of music fans of all ages during their long absence. For 90 minutes, I was taken back to my childhood. It was almost as if we’d all been transported in time. Maybe the ABBA Arena is actually a giant DeLorean, or a blue police box.
This is a cutting-edge show that elevates music to a whole new level of performance art. It’s a voyage into both the past – the old Waterloo footage, the familiar garish costumes – and the future, with segments transporting the audience to space or featuring Tron-like outfits.
It sets a new benchmark for other artists to follow, replicate and build on. Until then, this is a genuine once-in-a-lifetime experience, one you simply must see.
The winner takes it all. And the winner is ABBA.
ABBA Voyage setlist
- The Visitors
- Hole In Your Soul
- Knowing Me, Knowing You
- Mamma Mia
- Does Your Mother Know
- Lay All Your Love On Me
- Summer Night City
- Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)
- When All Is Said And Done
- Don’t Shut Me Down
- I Still Have Faith In You
- Thank You For The Music
- Dancing Queen
- [Encore] The Winner Takes It All