I understand now why the Swedes drink too much and want to kill themselves. I’m in a faux Greek taverna, with a projected image of the Mediterranean and a boiling sun on one wall, a giant plastic olive tree next to a fountain (of which more later), distressed balconies adorned with acrylic bougainvillea – while outside it’s minus 13C.
For this is not a sun-kissed resort, but the middle of Stockholm, and I am at the second night of a new Abba-themed extravaganza entitled, Mamma Mia! The Party!
I have in front of me a bowl of houmous that has developed a worrying crust, and a glass of bad wine.
Money, money, money: The £120-a-head extravaganza is a sort of dinner dance-cum-cut-price Cirque du Soleil
Inches from my nose is a failed drama school type, gurning into her head mic, emitting what was once a fantastic song but which has long since been murdered.
A musician wielding a sort of banjo and far too much information in his nether regions, given the tight white spangled Lycra, is inches from my ear. A woman I had thought was a waitress suddenly performs a handstand next to my table, giving me a close-up of her white pants.
And an older woman in chef whites has seemingly abandoned her stove to deliver a resounding version of Gimme Gimme Gimme.
After four hours of bowls of Greek salad being wheeled out during long, protracted silences, a disco ball is finally lowered into this scene, tables are cleared, an acrobat emerges dripping and rather incongruously from the fountain, and to my alarm, 450 Swedes take to the tabletops with gusto and start dancing to… yes, you guessed it, Dancing Queen.
The title of this latest spin-off, a sort of dinner dance-cum-cut-price Cirque du Soleil extravaganza, all set to the Abba back catalogue, should have been enough to set off alarm bells. Anything with the word ‘Party’ in the name just puts my back up. The plot, if you can call it that, is very different to the film and musical bearing the title of the 1975 hit.
Mamma Mia! The Party! involves the owner of a fictitious taverna called Nicos, his ghastly daughter, and her pursuit of a love interest. That’s it. The lead role, a vaguely Meryl Streep character, is played by a tall, short-haired blonde I quickly rename Beryl Cheap.
Reunited: ABBA members Bjorn Ulvaeus, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Agnetha Faltskog and Benny Andersson come together for the first time in 30 years for the opening of the event
I literally cannot stand it, and very soon pipe up with my own rendition of, ‘Baby can you hear me, SOS!’
The new venture was launched to great fanfare on Wednesday when the four members of probably the greatest pop group in history were reunited on stage.
The image ricocheted around the world because it was the first time in 34 years that Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad had been together on stage (a joint photocall for the Mamma Mia! film premiere eight years ago doesn’t count, as the four were insulated from each other by cast members).
You could almost see the static crackling in the air between them, which couldn’t be blamed on the nylon culottes they used to wear as they are all now too old to squeeze into such bad taste.
She’s a Meryl Streep type but I can her Beryl Cheap
Their long-awaited reunion, unlike my evening, was thankfully brief.
This latest incarnation, performed in Swedish but currently being translated into English in preparation for taking it worldwide, is the brainchild of Bjorn.
I met him before The Party! in the penthouse apartment atop the Abba hotel around the corner from the venue. There is an Abba gift shop in the lobby selling Abba keyrings, baseball caps and candles. I tried to buy the famous blue skull cap worn by Agnetha in her round-bottomed prime, but unfortunately only the balls of wool are on offer so you can knit your own. But I did manage to purchase a replica of the kimono worn by Agnetha in 1980 on the very last tour in Japan: only £33!
There is also the Abba museum, where the band’s extraordinary success (375 million record sales, while 55 million have seen the Mamma Mia! musical to date) and even more outlandish costumes are on show.
I grew up on Abba, twisting many an ankle given my copycat PVC platform boots, enduring many a detention due to my addiction to bright blue eye shadow, and even sleeping with a rubber band between my two front teeth in an attempt to get Agnetha’s smile.
But I can’t help telling Bjorn that perhaps some memories should be left intact.
How did he persuade the other three band members to turn up?
New best friend: Liz Jones talks to Abba’s Bjorn in Stockholm. He described the reunion as ‘very natural, affectionate’
‘I put the call out, but I wasn’t sure if one or two would come. Getting up on stage was all Frida’s idea.’
Did he feel choked up? ‘Not choked, but it was emotional. It felt very natural, affectionate.’ What did they talk about? ‘It was all over very quickly.’
The four, all hovering around the age of 70, seem to have aged very well. ‘I don’t colour my hair – it’s naturally this colour – but I dye my beard to match it,’ Bjorn told me.
‘I suppose we never did the whole rock ’n’ roll thing of taking drugs. I don’t think in all those years anyone ever offered me cocaine. We were two married couples!’
How did he feel when he heard the news that David Bowie had died? ‘I never met him. I was very sad. But he left such a legacy behind.’ Hasn’t Bjorn, though? ‘I don’t think you can call what we did a legacy.’
He became animated when I told him I have met Sir Paul McCartney. ‘What is he like? I’ve never met him.’ I told him the Beatle is lovely, but that he also dyes his hair. Bjorn seems to have spent far too much time in Sweden, where he still lives. ‘People are so used to me here. I never get bothered or stopped in the street.’
Both couples divorced, of course, hence the static, but Bjorn denies there is any ill-feeling these days. Sadly, he refused to be photographed with me downstairs in the museum, probably because the sight of the costumes must hurt his eyes. ‘I can’t believe how badly we dressed! That I chose to look like that!’
I cannot tell you how awful this new money-spinner is (tickets are about £120, drinks are extra, yet it’s sold out until June). But worst of all is that Bjorn says the show is ‘a Mamma Mia! bubble where people can have a bloody good time’.
That is all well and good, because an Abba record can cheer up the most morose of listeners. But he has enough money, surely? Transporting a Greek island to the middle of Stockholm is an exercise of the utmost bad taste (even an old Greek, black-clad crone is installed on a balcony, overlooking proceedings), given the migrants drowning in the waters of the real Mediterranean.
Thank you for the music, Bjorn. But I think you should divert all the proceeds to the refugees.