The year is 2022, the sun is shining, and one of the world’s most successful pop groups is reuniting for the first time in 40 years.
Agnetha, Benny, Björn and Anni-Frid (AKA Frida) haven’t aged a day – literally. There isn’t a line on their faces or a grey hair on their heads. That’s because this concert residency is the product of the original band, now all in their 70s, spending a month in motion capture suits to create startlingly lifelike digital avatars of themselves.
It would be easy to write this off as a gimmick, the ultimate passive income, but so completely lifelike is the illusion it can reduce a grown woman to tears. By the end of the show, cheering at four digital renderings of a 70s Europop group to play ‘one more song’ felt utterly natural.
When Benny Andersson’s avatar insists “this is really me” with a meticulously encoded twinkle in his digitally rendered eye, even the real Benny Andersson, who slipped in the back to watch the production, seemed willing to believe it.
Taking place at the custom-built ABBA Arena in Stratford, ABBA Voyage has some serious technical chops, having been created in collaboration with the visual effects team behind Star Wars. Accompanying the avatar cast are live musicians, singers and a host of visual thrills made up of moving screens, mirrors and lasers.
Yet for all the tech wizardry, ABBA Voyage’s director Baillie Walsh is right when he says the tech is the least important thing about this show.
There are entire songs where the avatars aren’t on stage, with the show’s live singers capably handling Does Your Mother Know, while Waterloo revels in the nostalgia of its 1974 Eurovision footage, and Eagle and Voulez-Vous are delivered through a two-part film centred on Scandinavian folklore.
Unlike traditional venues, here the audience can see everyone’s faces. At only 3,000 capacity, there is no seat too far from the stage and the show’s (mostly followed) request to not use your phones means there’s a real sense of shared experience. This is a celebration of live performance, with the blurring of the real and the unreal only adding to the show’s electricity. It also helps that, with an enviable wardrobe of flares, sequins and diamante-studded velour tracksuits (sadly not available in the gift shop), ABBA Voyage is camp with a capital C.
While this experiment in the merging of tech and artistry is trailblazing, it’s hard to see it working for another artist or group – this mad moment belongs to ABBA. It’s completely insane and utterly wonderful.