When Abba rise through the stage of the new arena built in their name in Stratford, east London, beamed up with spotlights like gods, the stadium erupts. Despite an announcement asking the audience not to photograph or film the show to maintain the “mystery” of the Abba experience, iPhones are raised instantly to record the moment. Here are Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid as younger, virtual versions of themselves, more than 40 years after their last live show in London. Three thousand people are dying to see them. Just 90 minutes previously, a crowd had congregated outside the Pudding Mill Lane DLR station to witness the real, 2022 versions of Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid walk the red carpet for the opening night of Abba Voyage, the band’s new show created with motion capture technology, screaming with delight at a mere glimpse of the back of their heads.
Abba Voyage is not so much a musical experience as a religious one. The stadium, nestled among blocks of flats and not far from the Olympic tower, looks something like a spaceship; this is spirituality for the future. After four balls of light transform into Abba from below the stage, their presence, no matter how unreal, is almost overwhelming.
The show intersperses the de-aged, 30-something “Abbatars” – they are not holograms, apparently, in which case it’s completely beyond me what they are, given that they look 3D, and move like real people, and touch each other – with projections of the filmed show on huge screens that encircle half the arena, from floor to ceiling. Instantaneous switches between the Abbatars and the screen sometimes tricks your eye into thinking the giant Abba are also 3D, at an appropriate size for the intensity of the experience.
That the show unfolds with the euphoria you would expect from a live Abba gig is testament not only to the extraordinary technology but also, of course, the power of the music. In “Chiquitita” the whole crowd rises to their feet for the first time, ecstatic. The hits keep coming: “Fernando” with a twinkling backdrop of the Northern Lights; “Lay All Your Love on Me” with a rainbow light show that engulfs the audience; an emotional rendition of “Thank You for the Music”; and a projection of Abba at Eurovision 1974 performing their winning hit “Waterloo” (here, the Abbatars dance around behind the original footage, creating a bizarre timewarp). If you thought it couldn’t get more surreal, in “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” I turn around to see that the King and Queen of Sweden, who have flown in specially for the event, are on their feet, dancing and clapping nestled among their hefty security cohort.
It’s astonishing how quickly you adjust to the avatars, which on first sight look a bit like Sims; particularly when they’re stationary, their lack of adherence to the laws of gravity gives them an uncanny weightlessness. Halfway through the show the live band, usually tucked in the left-hand corner of the enormous stage, takes over for “Does Your Mother Know” and, although they perform it with energy and skill, the three flesh-and-blood singers shimmying across the front of the stage, somehow it doesn’t quite land – the crowd wants not only to hear the music but to be in the presence of its creators.
Abba Voyage is touted as an “immersive experience”, a term that gets thrown around a lot these days. Here it feels like it actually applies. You are drenched in Abba – the distinctive harmonies and Benny’s twanging piano, the costumes and the chemistry, and the raw joy and pain, the emotional directness that makes this music timeless and irresistible. At the very end, in a profoundly moving moment of the past meeting the present, technology giving way to reality, gods becoming humans again, the real Abba – now in their 70s – walked onstage for a curtain call and the stadium filled with deafening cheers.
Abba Voyage is an extraordinary technological and artistic achievement, brilliantly entertaining and somehow beautifully uncynical. But more than anything, it shows that there is nothing more real than pop music.
“Abba Voyage” is at the Abba Arena, London E20, until 2 October