It’s about a quarter of the way into the opening night of ABBA’s Voyage residency when Benny Andersson starts stripping on stage. “We’re going to keep you in the dark while I make a quick costume change,” he tells the laughing crowd. “Can I get the towel? I never liked this costume in the first place. My arm is stuck, can you help me?” It’s one of several moments during the set that makes you forget you’re watching avatars – sorry, ABBAtars – instead of real people. And, yes, it’s a little cheesy, but it’s ABBA. What did you expect?
Last night (May 26), the band finally launched its enormous undertaking: a possibly never-ending string of concerts at a purpose-built (and flat-packable) ABBA Arena in east London. The residency, which stars digital avatars of the band in their “1979 prime”, has been five years in the making, and arrives 40 years after their last concert. Playing alongside the avatars – which are amazingly, but eerily, realistic – is a live band, put together by former Klaxons member James Righton. They’re kept mostly in the sidelines for the show, but get their main stage moment with a solo rendition of ‘Does Your Mother Know’ – a sweet and welcomed moment in the otherwise digital set.
Though it mostly doesn’t feel digital. Opening with ‘The Visitors’ – the title track from the band’s final album before their 2018 reunion – the ABBAtars ascend from below the stage, dressed head-to-toe in the extravagant, shimmering costumes they’re so renowned for (though this time designed by Dolce & Gabbana). The huge screen that depicts the life-sized figures on stage also magnifies the avatars, giving the audience a close-up view of the slightly uncanny faces of Andersson, Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. The effect is jaw-dropping – the avatars move, talk, and sing like real people. They endearingly gesture to one another, and share coy, romantic looks (they’re depicted at a time when the respective couples were still married).
After a short speech by Andersson – in which he recalls the band’s last London show, in 1979 – the band launches into ‘SOS’ (but not before a brief EastEnders piano intro, which gets a big laugh from the crowd). Fältskog and Lyngstad energetically fly around the stage, as the audience roars the lyrics along with them. The third track, ‘Knowing Me Knowing You’, offers a stark reminder that you’re not at a real show – the life-sized avatars disappear from the stage, and instead the song is performed by them on the big screen. It’s one of a handful of moments where the producers don’t utilise the avatars to their full extent – the song sadly feels like an interlude, while you wait for the realistic-looking people to come back on stage. This happens later, with ‘Eagle’ and ‘Voulez Vous’ soundtracking an animation – the only dull moment in the show, perhaps.
Still, it’s quickly forgotten when the avatars are back. ‘Chiquitita’ is one of the highlights of the set, performed against the backdrop of an ever-shrinking moon. From there, the hits keep on coming – ‘Fernando’, ‘Lay All Your Love on Me’, ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!’, as well as new tracks ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ and ‘I Still Have Faith in You’. As do the costume changes, a particular highlight being velour tracksuits, each bejewelled with the individual ABBA member’s name. Short speeches by the band reflect on their recent reunion, joke about the inspiration behind songs, and recall the UK giving them “nul points” at Eurovision in 1974 – a neat segue into showing their contest-winning performance on the big screen.
By the time you reach the closers, ‘Thank You for the Music’ and ‘Dancing Queen’, you feel like you’re in the presence of ABBA – and not just because last night you actually were. What the producers, and the band themselves, have done with the show is groundbreaking, and will likely transform live music (though whether that’s for better or worse is still up for debate). Last night, though – and for the rest of ABBA’s residency – we can, once again, just be thankful for the music.