Abba Voyage Review

Ten live musicians. One hundred and sixty cameras. Two hundred and ninety-one speakers. Five hundred moving lights. One thousand Industrial Light & Magic visual effects experts, working one billion computing hours. One thousand, six hundred seats. Eight hundred and seventy thousand watts of audio amplification. And 65 million pixels on one state-of-the-art screen.

Yes, the sheer weight of technology that has gone into the production of the ground-breaking ABBA Voyage show is staggering. But there have also been equal amounts of heart and soul poured into a passion project that was five years in the making, and might just change the face of global live entertainment forever.

ABBA Voyage launched at the purpose-built ABBA Arena near Queen Elizabeth Park in East London in May, in front of an audience that included Kate Moss, Kylie Minogue and the King and Queen of Sweden. And it’s already booking through to May next year, after rave reviews for that opening show.

Key to its success is the building itself. It’s a marvel of construction, seemingly bigger on the inside than on the out, and built so that every seat (and, of course, the 1,400 standing places at the front) has a brilliant view. Meanwhile, the pre-programmed lighting effects and spectacular sound system mean that what sounded like it could have been a grand folly, is actually a key part of making the show work. Even if it did represent a unique challenge to show producers Svana Gisla and Ludvig Andersson.

“Neither of us have built a 3,000-capacity theatre before, so that’s an adventure!” laughs Andersson, speaking before the show launched. “And if that was the only thing we were doing, that would still have been quite a lot!”

“The reason we’re building this ridiculous building is because ABBA are digitally there and you are <<physically>> there,” explains Gisla. “The space that’s in-between becomes a space that we need to crack through, so we inhabit it together. It’s like a third dimension in a way and that’s what the tapestry of this building provides: that barrier breaker. It’s the connector that brings you to us and us to you and that’s what’s so magical and different about this concert – you don’t know where the digital ends and the physical begins.”

Remarkably, the show actually bears that bold statement out. It’s astonishing how quickly the audience forgets that they’re only watching digital, de-aged versions – or ABBAtars, if you insist – of Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Fältskog. But then, after a brief period of adjustment as the prefab four emerge, and the limbs look a little too long and the movements seem a little robotic, this is an astoundingly immersive show.

So, whether you’re watching the avatars themselves or the enormous wraparound screens (which also host some slightly bizarre animations during some numbers, and joyous archive footage on Waterloo), or simply the light show, it is unnervingly like being at a real live, in-person event (and the crowd clap and scream as if it were the real ABBA performing, even though most of these dance moves would surely be beyond them nowadays).

Having a set stuffed with indelible hits, delivered by a surprisingly punchy live band – superbly marshalled by musical director James Righton of Klaxons fame – helps, of course (and Voulez-Vous, Dancing Queen, The Winner Takes It All and Knowing Me, Knowing You are all present and correct alongside a smattering of deeper cuts, although Super Trouper, Take A Chance On Me and Money, Money Money are notably absent).

But this isn’t robo-karaoke or a VR simulation. None of those vaguely creepy hologram shows or slightly disappointing in-game avatar concerts come anywhere close: this is not like anything you’ve seen before. But it is surely something that people will want to see again; whether that’s a return ticket to Voyage itself (other songs are apparently in the can so setlists can be updated and tweaked for seasonal demands in the future) or a similar show by different artists.

There is certainly potential for ABBA Voyage to run in different locations – the venue is even suitably Swedishly flat-packed, so could be relatively simply shifted elsewhere (“Get your Allen keys out,” laughs Gisla). London may be its most obvious home, but the ABBA brand has spread far and wide since the band originally split in 1982. And surely somewhere like Las Vegas would go wild for an open-ended residency that isn’t at the mercy of a visiting superstar deciding they don’t like the set at the last minute?

You can bet that the industry is also looking at the potential of the format for other acts. Few may have the patience (or the incredibly deep pockets) of ABBA, who committed so whole-heartedly to the project that not even a global pandemic could stop it. And not all the obvious iconic bands with pan-generational fanbases have all their members alive to engage in the process. The chance to leave a live legacy long after you’re too decrepit to lift a guitar will surely appeal to many, but can it really become the future of live entertainment?

“If we say yes to that question we’re doomed to fail, so I’m saying no!” laughs Ludvig Andersson. “I don’t think other bands should look at this thinking, ‘Great, we don’t have to tour anymore, we can just do this’. That’s looking at it the wrong way.

“The only chance of this becoming a success is because ABBA themselves want to do it exactly like this,” he adds. “They think this is the best way they can connect with their fans and the best experience they can give their fans, better in fact than if they had actually been there in the flesh.”

It’s another bold statement but one that, highlighted by the real ABBA shuffling on stage at the end of the premiere show – having fooled the crowd seconds before with a sprightlier digital rendering of their modern selves – also has the ring of truth about it.

And that means the live entertainment industry might end up having to thank ABBA for a lot more than just the music.