It starts with The Visitors, an icy, electronic track in which authoritarian agents hammer on the door of a fearful dissident – not the Abba you expected to come calling in this trailblazing, retro-futurist extravaganza of a show. The song’s lead singer, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, is, as we all know, not really on stage tonight either. She and her bandmates are 3D renderings created via the granular CGI of Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), which cut its teeth on Star Wars and the Marvel films.
Lyngstad’s verisimilitude is, however, off the hook. The swish of the hair, the dentistry, the believability of her 1979 dance moves all contribute to a desire to suspend your disbelief and cast off on this surreal Voyage, which delivers everything Abba fans expect – the hits and the outfits – but still manages to surprise.
In the middle of the set is Eagle, which plays out as an anime video quest that recalls Studio Ghibli and the 2012 video game Journey. It’s unclear what the animation is doing here beyond padding out the voyage theme while the “performers” allegedly “change outfits” – one of the many little pacing tics that makes this gig feel real-ish. But it is surely to do with Abba’s desire to be understood as contemporary audio-visual movers and shakers, which they achieve, and then some.
Shortly afterwards comes Lay All Your Love on Me, in which the four seventysomethings, too often misunderstood as a frothy Swedish light entertainment outfit, make a serious bid to out-robot Kraftwerk in 3D with their luminous Tron suits and commitment to electronics. Underneath Benny Andersson’s churchy organ work is a synth line that would make the very early Depeche Mode proud.
A big chunk of Abba Voyage is, of course, devoted to the Chiquititas, Fernandos, Mamma Mias and Waterloos of playlist overkill. It’s a theatre performance, with a 7.45 start and matinees, rather than a gig. Quite a lot of big numbers accompany this production, which really does recapture much of the essence of one of the biggest bands in the world in their prime, give or take a slightly glassy expression here and there. One thousand animators worked on digitising footage of the four, who were filmed performing their songs by 120 motion capture cameras, then projected on this 65m pixel screen. This purpose-built, collapsible 3,000-capacity venue was designed to be shipped elsewhere with a relatively smaller carbon footprint. The surround sound is terrific (291 speakers), the 10-piece band are lively, fleshing out the 70s and 80s-era vocals. The many descending ropes of light are not a million miles away from Four Tet’s mesmerising, immersive rave shows.
The biggest number, though, is the bottom line. This venture needs to rake back £140m to break even. It has been a deliriously expensive undertaking, in which corporate sponsors, branding and ads are conspicuous by their absence. Until now, the most futuristic ersatz gig I have seen was Billie Eilish’s augmented reality livestream of 2020, in which a giant luxury car “raced” around the stage, footing some of the bill, no doubt. There is one sponsor here: the shipping company that will, eventually, take this nostalgic, future-forward circus elsewhere.
It is only natural to muse which megastars might attempt to copy Abba’s 21st-century travelling show. But the group’s deep pockets – the Mamma Mia! millions? – and detail-savvy creative control have ensured that this quest is one that few will undertake, at least with such surefootednesss.
Because the most enduring pleasure of the whole endeavour is exactly how uncheesy Voyage is; how it is not a Madame Tussauds with go-faster stripes. A kind of Scandinavian classiness is built into everything from the building’s exterior pine construction on up to the tunes themselves, in which stoicism and good sense barely hide the unbridled misery of a series of leave-takings.
When All Is Said and Done and The Winner Takes It All deliver their bleak payload, even as they are sung by ghosts in the machine. And that misused Alan Partridge theme tune, Knowing Me, Knowing You, claws back much of its shard-like poignancy. The eye-popping treatment suggests a fracturing hall of mirrors, in which the members of Abba split up, embrace and fall apart again.
Abba Voyage continues at the Abba Arena, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London E20, until 28 May 2023