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ABBA Voyage: ABBA Arena, London

What even is ABBA Voyage? And does it live up to the hype? Shaun Ponsonby travels to London’s Olympic Park to find out.

By Shaun Ponsonby
Thu 21 July, 2022

What, exactly, is ABBA Voyage?

This is a question we still can’t answer.

As we travelled to London’s Olympic Park in the hottest temperature ever recorded in the UK, the thought occurred that worst case scenario was that we’d get to sing and dance along to some of the greatest pop songs ever written with a few thousand like-minded people.

Best case scenario? Well, that was up in the air.

This is an entirely new experience. There have been hologram tours for the likes of Whitney Houston, Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison, and they have always left a sour taste in this writer’s mouth – profiteering from a deceased artist in a manner for which they gave no consent. A festival of pure nostalgia performed to a click track. What’s more, from the published images and available footage, they look terrible. I don’t know what the hell was going on with Whitney’s neck on her hologram, but it was weird and off-putting.

The key difference here is that all four members of ABBA are alive to give their consent. Not only that, but the motion capture footage filmed to create the digital images were performed by Agnetha, Benny, Bjorn and Anni-Frid themselves, not actors with the slightest of resemblance.

Technically – as some fans have pointed out on Twitter with exaggerated venom as if anyone other than technical wizards care about the difference – ABBA aren’t represented by holograms, but digital avatars (sorry, ABBAtars). This is technology developed by George Lucas’ Industrial  Light and Magic for the show. So, how do they look?

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Press shots haven’t come close to capturing the ABBAtars in action. There are times when you would swear there were people on stage. Benny and Bjorn in particular looked so lifelike that you completely fall into the illusion. Occasionally, in close ups on the big screens, you could see that it was an illusion – particularly with Agnetha’s ABBAtar. Perhaps this wouldn’t have been so noticeable if the others weren’t so jaw dropping, especially seeing as Agnetha was standing next to Frida for much of the show, whose ABBAtar expressed so much personality as to steal the show.

Most incredibly, despite our hosts being pixelated, the show still had an emotional core.

For all the mega hits, it was I Still Have Faith In You from 2021’s reunion album that tugged at the heartstrings. As Agnetha and Frida sing in each other’s arms, there is a sense of acknowledgment of the people they were in 1979, the people they have become in 2022, the passage of time, and the adventure of ABBA’s ever-growing legend. They will forever be associated with each other, and it feels like an especially poignant acknowledgment for Agnetha, whose personal struggles with fame, stage fright, phobias and depression have been well documented. It’s hard not to well up at lyrics like “I hear a bittersweet song in the memories we share” and the simplicity, effectiveness and truism of “We need one another” as they gaze into each other’s eyes.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t drawbacks to the concept. When the individual ABBAtars address the crowd, there is a feeling of a cheesy scripted Award show presentation. There’s only so much engagement you can have with a pre-recorded message, and there were awkward gaps to allow for applause that never came for statements like “Who’d have thought we would be back in the studio 40 years?” This was only underlined when the 10-piece backing band (including Little Boots) stepped forward in Does Your Mother Know, proving that technical wizardry can never replace genuine human interaction.

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That said, ABBA have been shrewd enough not to make this feel like a traditional concert. The more they separate the experience, the better. It’s another leg up they have on previous attempts by the estates of deceased artists.

It starts as soon as you enter the custom built ABBA Arena, fashioned to feel like an extension of the show itself. It’s a departure lounge, waiting for take-off. It continues with the neon concourse you follow to the main auditorium, and the forest projection and wildlife noises that greet you as you reach it.

Sensing that simply watching the ABBAtars for 90 minutes might get a bit old, the arena itself becomes a part of the show, allowing for a far more immersive experience. Lighted objects fly above our heads. There is no bad view. Wherever you are inside the venue, you are not simply a spectator, you are a part of the experience.

They go for as much realism as the technology will allow, but they wisely provide winks and nudges to the reality with self-aware humour. In darkness, there is a voice over and sound effects of Benny supposedly changing into a new costume and joking that he didn’t even like it in the 70s. He also plays the Eastenders theme as the intro to SOS, which elicits giggles through the crowd.

The only true mistake was two animations produced by Nexus Studios which appeared during Eagle and Voulez-Vous following the story of an explorer seeking out the legend of ABBA. The ABBAtars do not appear during these sequences. Though the animations themselves were impressive, you could feel the attention wane during Eagle. Luckily, Voulez-Vous came during what was, musically speaking, the apex of the show – a delirious 15 minutes of non-stop dance barrage that also included a perfectly segued Lay All Your Love On Me, Summer Night City and Gimme Gimme Gimme. Not even a confusing animation could ruin that.

The purpose of these animations is clear, and in a traditional concert setting they would act either as backdrops or segues to allow for a costume change. In this format, however, it feels like an error in judgement, and it took us out of the illusion that they had worked hard to (successfully) instil into us up until that point.

The show reaches its natural climax when they strike up Dancing Queen, convincing the few audience members not already dancing to rise to their feet with their arms in the air like the rest of us; a moment that would have been hard to match if it were the real ABBA in front of us. It’s these communal moments that all music-based events strive for.

Throughout the show, the ABBAtars were presented as they were in 1979 so as not to taint the classic image of ABBA. But following the short “encore” of The Winner Takes It All, the ABBAtars morphed into the band members as they are now for a virtual curtain call, and cheers that few could muster.

There are few bands that could have pulled this off. It’s a perfect combination. Along with Queen, ABBA have been extremely astute in allowing their legend to grow in the minds of the general public. The stock for both of these 70s supergroups has never been higher, and while some fans may grumble about Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again or constant reissues of ABBA Gold, pretty much everything they have done has reached its goal of successfully maintaining ABBA as a cultural force. By steadfastly refusing to reunite for 40 years, the hunger to see them together has grown exponentially. The individuality of each of the members has made them larger than life.

This continued success and commercial viability has allowed them to invest heavily in this project, which could, in theory, last forever. There were many hits missing; Take a Chance of Me, Money Money Money, The Name of the Game, I Have a Dream, Super Trouper. Reportedly, the band filmed performances of many songs that don’t appear in the show, meaning this could constantly be rejigged – adding and dropping songs, new sequences created. When the technology updates, it’s highly likely they could return to the stop motion animations and make the ABBAtars even more lifelike.

It is a unique experience, not a concert. And if Brian May, Priscilla Presley and The Jacksons are frantically taking notes, we’d honestly rather they didn’t. This is ABBA’s thing. Let’s keep it that way for now.