The Abba-fab night that I finally said to Benny and Bjorn: ‘Thank you for the music!’ ANDREW PIERCE reviews the new Mamma Mia! restaurant live show

The air is thick with jasmine and bougainvillea. A fountain gurgles prettily. The band plays background music while waiters and waitresses serve groaning platters of tzatziki, red-pepper hummus, spinach pie and lamb kleftiko to delighted customers.

It could be any evening in Nikos Taverna on the dazzling Greek island of Skopelos — except I’m in London’s O2 arena in the spectacularly kitsch themed restaurant created for Mamma Mia! The Party.

This ‘immersive’ live show of Abba’s greatest hits, combined with dinner, drinks and a vigorous disco at the end, is the latest brainchild of Abba co-founder Bjorn Ulvaeus.

Mamma Mia! The Party is an ‘immersive’ live show of Abba’s greatest hits, featuring a triumphant performance of the long-running stage show Mamma Mia! combined with dinner, drinks and a vigorous disco at the end

Mamma Mia! The Party is an ‘immersive’ live show of Abba’s greatest hits, featuring a triumphant performance of the long-running stage show Mamma Mia! combined with dinner, drinks and a vigorous disco at the end

When the band begins playing the first strains of Thank You For The Music, the waiters and waitresses suddenly start waving their trays in the air and burst together into song.

And, reader, so do I.

The attention to detail is extraordinary. The walls are painted a rich blue, the tables are laid with checked cloths and heaped with big loaves of sesame-studded country bread.

The tinted lights bathe the diners in a healthy butterscotch glow, as if we were sun-worshippers fresh from the beach, ready for the evening’s first retsina.

It’s only when I look up at the battery of lights and equipment hiding the ceiling that I remember I’m sitting on a sophisticated stage set and not in an Aegean paradise.

The production, which runs until February, builds on the phenomenal success of the Mamma Mia! stage show, which opened in London in 1999 and continues to play to packed houses in the West End. I’ve seen it 23 times.

Andrew Pierce (centre) meets Abba stars Benny Andersson (left) and Bjorn Ulvaeus at Mamma Mia! The Party in London’s O2 arena

Andrew Pierce (centre) meets Abba stars Benny Andersson (left) and Bjorn Ulvaeus at Mamma Mia! The Party in London’s O2 arena

More than 65 million people have seen it, in at least 450 cities and in 16 languages.

It was followed, of course, by the tremendously successful film in 2008, starring Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried. The rather skimpy plot follows a young woman’s quest to find her real father (out of three possibilities) before she marries.

She writes to her three possible dads who, in the film, are played by Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard. She asks them to come to her Greek island home, Skopelos, where the wedding is taking place.

Like the original Mamma Mia!, the storyline of Mamma Mia! The Party is told through the medium of Abba songs, threaded through the evening like sizzling kebab meat on a skewer.

The show has been adapted by Great British Bake Off host Sandi Toksvig who, being born in Denmark, is Scandinavian herself, and runs six nights a week: I hope they’ve stocked enough ouzo.

We dine as we watch the show, elements of which are frankly incomprehensible. I’ve still no idea why a silver water nymph emerges majestically from the restaurant’s courtyard fountain to perform acrobatics with a hoop.

Or why the character Nikos surrenders his apron to do a passable impersonation of a Druid, with gold leaves in his mane of dark black hair.

Mamma Mia! The Party (pictured) was introduced to London by former members Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson

Mamma Mia! The Party (pictured) was introduced to London by former members Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson

No one else on my table has a clue what’s going on, either. But they don’t care.

Like me, they’re just waiting for the next song. The cast trill through 35 in four hours (yes, it’s not a short evening).

I yelp with joy when they sing When I Kissed The Teacher. I serenade my partner to I Have A Dream. I wiggle on my chair to Waterloo.

When I spot Strictly judge Craig Revel Horwood, I ask him to join me on the dance floor.

‘Not likely,’ he bellows. ‘I’ve been watching you. Frankly, darling, you make Ann Widdecombe look elegant.’ So that’s my Strictly audition down the drain.

And the food? Well, it’s . . . generous. There’s mezze, octopus, big bowls of Greek salad and main course platters of hearty grilled meats.

But given that it costs £151 for the cheapest seat — and my ticket was £200 with only one free drink — it’s a rich man’s world in Skopelos.

My love affair with Abba began when I was a teenager and watched wide-eyed as they captivated an entire continent when they performed Waterloo in 1974’s Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton. A blonde, blue-eyed beauty called Agnetha was wearing a striking cap and pantaloons while her bandmate Frida sported a cowboy shirt and boldly vertiginous heels. Benny played an upright piano, Bjorn twanged a space-age guitar.

I was hooked: and outraged when the British jury, to their eternal shame, gave Abba the unforgivable ‘nul points’. No matter: the band triumphed that night (the winner takes it all) and went on to conquer the world.

I bought their records with cash from my job at a greengrocer’s, and still smart from my failure to get tickets for their 1977 concert at the Royal Albert Hall, which sold out within minutes.

Salvation came two decades later — they split in 1982 — when theatre producer Judy Craymer devised the stage show Mamma Mia!

Last year, Judy created the film sequel Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, using the same cast and including a cameo from pop icon Cher. Sadly the cast did not include me, though Judy, aware of my passion for all things Abba, did let me on stage to be an extra in the Novello Theatre version in London’s West End for the climactic wedding scene.

I was on stage for eight giddy minutes — and I’m afraid my excitement got to me. At a critical moment, when three potential dads all stand up in church, to my eternal shame, I stood with them. I still blush to think about it.

I yelp with joy when they sing When I Kissed The Teacher. I serenade my partner to I Have A Dream. I wiggle on my chair to Waterloo, writes ANDREW PIERCE

I yelp with joy when they sing When I Kissed The Teacher. I serenade my partner to I Have A Dream. I wiggle on my chair to Waterloo, writes ANDREW PIERCE

And what of Abba themselves? Bjorn, an incredibly youthful 74, can still fit into the garish costumes he wore 40 years ago.

‘London is the first venue where we are doing this outside of Stockholm,’ he tells me at the ‘taverna’.

‘London is my favourite city after Stockholm,’ I reply.

We have met once before, at the 20th-anniversary Mamma Mia! show. ‘You won’t remember me,’ I say. But he does.

‘I watched you on TV two days later talking about Brexit!’ he says.

Suddenly Benny Anderson, 72, the other male half of Abba, joins us. I’m in Abba heaven.

‘We love the fact that Mamma Mia! stage show introduced Abba to a whole new generation,’ Benny says. ‘We are flattered and amazed that people still like our music.’

I ask Bjorn why, after all these years, Abba’s popularity seems to be growing, rather than fading.

‘I can’t tell you the reason,’ he says, staring out delightedly at the packed dance floor.

‘It’s a mystery to me why these songs keep coming back.’

It’s not a mystery to me. They are timeless feel-good songs that, as my night at the taverna shows, make you want to sing and dance.

Of course, it all ends with Dancing Queen — and I have to be prised off the dance floor.

ANDREW PIERCE reviews the new Mamma Mia! restaurant live show 

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