“To be, or not to be? That is no longer the question”. It’s a very heavy existential concept to have laid on you at a pop concert, but this is no normal gig. The words came from a digital avatar of ABBA’s Benny Andersson – not a ‘hologram’, we’re told, but more of a CGI reincarnation (or ‘ABBA-tar’) based on the movements and performance of the living Swedish pop legends, then painstakingly presented with all kinds of smoke and mirrors to make them seem forever locked in their ’70s prime.
Whatever sorcery this is, it works – and then some. After being greeted into Stratford, east London’s purpose-built ABBA Arena by scenes of Nordic woodland, we’re quickly plunged into a bold, new sci-fi world. The four ABBA-shaped beings emerge slowly from beneath the stage; the crowd enraptured at what appears to be the very real and physical return of these heroes from the ‘70s.
Their movements, their shadows, their clothes, the way the sequins shimmer in the light… how can this not be real? The ABBAtars roll through the majestically dark ‘The Visitors’ and ‘Hole In Your Soul’, and then the impact really hits when the (immaculately skilled) real-life band appears beside them, playing instruments and providing backing vocals, and you can’t tell the difference between man and machine.
The blockbuster visuals and effects bolster ABBA’s new digital forms by making them seem superhuman – taking us from Mediterranean sunsets to the Northern Lights and then outer-space – and make for a sensory overload as they smash through a wedding bangers mega-mix with gusto. ‘Chiquitita’, ‘Fernando’, ‘Mama Mia’ and ‘Dancing Queen’ get everyone on their feet and out of their minds, but it’s the all-round impact of ‘Lay Your Love On Me’, ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’, ‘The Winner Takes It All’ and an almighty ‘Voulez-Vous’ that make for the true set highlights. New tracks ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ and ‘I Still Have Faith In You’, part of last year’s comeback album from which this show takes its name, land with one hell of a punch, adding more purpose to their return.
Some moments, like the ‘Waterloo’ Eurovision montage and a recurring folk tale cartoon, seem a bit unnecessary and might benefit from being replaced by a performance element, but then again they do let the show breathe a bit. At the finale, a rapturous applause greets modern day ABBA – only to find we’ve been had by yet more visual trickery when the actual ABBA take to the stage to giddy delight. We genuinely don’t know what’s real anymore.
Ageing rockers and poppers are bound to imitate the idea, but it’ll be a struggle to come close to the experience of ABBA Voyage. We for one welcome our new ABBAtar overlords, if only for giving these songs back to us in a totally new and joyful way. As the digital Anderson concluded: “Without a song or a dance, what are we? That is the question.”
‘Hole in Your Soul’
‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’
‘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’
‘The Winner Takes It All’