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Mamma Mia… how can I resist you?

Heather Wallace

Imagine if life was like a musical – someone breaks into song and everyone around them knows the words.

And that makes perfect sense after seeing Mamma Mia, because surely everyone, everywhere in the world knows Abba’s songs and will sing along with the right prompting.

So of course these characters on a small Greek island are all singing their hearts out, whether they’re the ex-lead singer in a band who now manages a hotel (Donna played by Natalie O’Donnel), her daughter who’s about to get married (Sophie/Sarah Morrison), her best friends and former back-up dancers (free spirited Rosie/Alicia Gardiner and glamorous, much married Tanya/Jayde Westaby) or her three exes who have all been secretly invited because Sophie thinks one of them is her father – she just doesn’t know which one…

The preview at the Canberra Theatre Centre is the first time I’ve seen the stage show, although I am very fond of the film. For all its faults the movie cast was having such a great time and it was strangely comforting that their singing wasn’t any better than mine.

If, like me, that’s your only exposure to Mamma Mia the Musical then run don’t walk to see this production. I mean it. Seeing the stage show, though, showed me how different the experience is with a cast of professional singers—they hit the notes and do justice to the songs I’ve been singing since my childhood, using my hairbrush as a microphone.

This is a cast at the top of their game, everyone brings energy and vitality to the stage. Natalie O’Donnel is particularly good as Donna, a loving mother struggling to let her daughter make her own mistakes, and facing the lost love of her life who broke her heart 20 years before. She’s by turns tough, vulnerable and relatable, particularly when she dives under a bed or hides in her closet to avoid the exes. Natalie O’Donnell first played Sophie in the original Australian tour, so there’s something very fitting about her now being Donna. It’s the same with Jayde Westaby as Tanya, she originally played one of Sophie’s friends in the UK production.

I have to admit the character of Sophie has always annoyed me a bit, what with her wanting her perfect dream wedding, but Sarah Morrison brings a wistfulness to her as someone who has always had a question mark over one big part of her life. The physical likeness between Donna and Sophie is remarkable, the casting is spot on.

The three ‘might-be’ dads are great value too. Ian Stenlake as Sam is dashing, Josef Ber is roguish as Bill and Phillip Lowe as Harry, the straight-laced Brit who misses being the free-spirited ‘Head Banger’ of his youth, is utterly sweet and charming. They each do some truly spectacular daggy-dad dancing, making it utterly believable that any one of them might be Sophie’s long, lost father.

Rosie and Tanya are utter delights—the preview I saw had Jadie Bastow in the role of Rosie rather than Alicia Gardiner (better known as Nurse Kim from Offspring)—and I loved her version. Her lusty ‘Take a chance on me’ sung while shaking out a bad knee made me laugh out loud (possibly because I’m a similar age and I’ve recently busted my own knee).

It’s good to see the middle-aged characters getting in on the action—romance isn’t just for the young. On the subject of romance, Tanya redeems one of my least favourite Abba songs, ‘Does your mother know?’, in a gender role reversal as she effortlessly bats away a young suitor.

The younger cast members don’t get as much stage time as the more mature members, but they make the most of what they get, and throw themselves whole heartedly into proceedings. Special mention has to go to Alex Gibson-Giogio as Eddie, a local Greek boy who offers up some timely one liners and sardonic laughs.

As you’d expect from a musical made up entirely of Abba songs, love is a major theme. What I love about the story though is that it’s not just romantic love, it’s love in all its guises, whether it’s between a parent and child, the lifelong bond of friends and the pain of lost love. With love and family such a strong part of the story, I’m very glad I saw it with my sister, who has been my hairbrush microphone partner for many, many decades.

Just a brief warning, the second act starts with a literal bang so loud I let out a startled, “Holy ss…Swedish meatballs.” Apart from that my only quibble with the production is that it’s so very, very, very hard not to sing along out loud for more than two hours!

But fear not Abba lovers, we all get our chance at the very end during the curtain calls to get up, sing and dance along with the cast. And when the determined Tanya tells you to dance, you are going to get up and dance!

So come on Canberra, get to your feet and say, “Thank you for the music.”

The essentials

What: Mamma Mia the musical
Where: Canberra Theatre Centre
When: 5-17 December

Images by Peter Brew Bevan


Heather Wallace

Heather’s career in arts and heritage PR spans 15 years, with highlights including working for Sean Connery at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and promoting Australia’s World Heritage places. Her blog, Myths and Misadventures, (, is about life lessons we can learn from the Romans. You can follow her on Twitter @Missmythology. More about the Author

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