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I went to see ABBA Voyage in London – I loved every second and have absolutely no doubt it's the future of live entertainment

Chris Johnston   

I went to see ABBA Voyage in London – I loved every second and have absolutely no doubt it's the future of live entertainment
  • Voyage put ABBA back on stage when the show opened in London in May 2022.
  • The technology behind the show almost makes you believe the four band members really are on stage.

Taylor Swift has probably broken records with her latest tour and Beyonce practically broke the internet with her most recent global jaunt, although neither has their own venue with their name above the door. But there's one act that does: ABBA.

Yes, the Swedish popsters who split up in 1982 and took about four decades to decide to make a new album, have a dedicated ABBA Arena in London. It might be in a forgotten corner of the park in east London, which hosted the Olympic Games in 2012 — but nevertheless it's the band's name over the door.

The 3,000-capacity venue is home to ABBA Voyage, which put the foursome back on stage when it opened in May 2022. It's not actually them on stage, however, but "Abbatars" — yes, that's what they're called — consisting of AR versions of Agnetha, Benny, Bjorn, and Anni-frid (aka Frida).

Full disclosure: I'm an ABBA fan. They're the first band I liked as a kid, and the first album I bought with my own money. But even if you're not, you're going to know a lot of ABBA songs, especially if you've seen one of the "Mamma Mia" movies or the musical.

The arena is divided into a standing area that probably holds about half the audience, with tiered seating behind. Knowing that the "performers" are the 21st-century equivalent of smoke and mirrors (or high-tech projections if you prefer) leaves the audience desperate to see just how convincing the illusion is. And despite my inherent bias, I can honestly say that Voyage is a live experience unlike anything I've ever seen in my, erm, many years of going to gigs.

The Abbatars are really convincing. Not in a "squint a bit and hope for the best" kind of way, but good enough to persuade a semi-gullible friend it really is the four members of ABBA up there, looking just like they did in 1979. OK, a tiny bit of suspension of disbelief is required, but like I saif, the effect is way better than you might expect.

In the 90-odd minutes of the show, there are "costume changes," banter from each band member in between certain songs, and even in-jokes about the somewhat existential nature of the "performance." The whole experience is certainly helped by the incredible strength of ABBA's back catalog, which, to my mind at least, contains some of the best pop songs ever recorded ("Dancing Queen," "SOS," "Knowing Me, Knowing You.")

Further, the producers (who include Benny's son Ludvig) made some smart decisions. The vocals are on tape, but there's a very tight live 10-piece band, and three backup vocalists who also take center stage for one track, "Does Your Mother Know." (That also allowed the song in which Bjorn originally sings "but girl you're only a child" to be included in the set list.)

The energy dips a little when they perform two downtempo songs from the "Voyage" album released last year, which is a bit of a letdown after a discotastic run that includes "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)." But not every track can be a banger, I suppose.

It's hard to convey exactly what the Voyage experience is like, but it's mainly a deeply weird mix of time travel and technology crossed with amazing pop. Whatever magic dust has been sprinkled, it really works.

The sound and lighting effects are superb, and there's judicious use of animation, which means the Abbatars are not on stage for the entire show. This helps maintain the illusion. The band does look slightly less real on the giant high-definition video screens on either side of the stage, though.

Another disclosure: I've seen Voyage twice. I think I enjoyed it more the second time because I was less focused on trying to figure out how everything worked and instead focused on the enduring brilliance of ABBA's music.

It's also been a business masterstroke. Although developing the technology and venue cost a colossal £140 million, or about $175 million, more than 1.5 million tickets have been sold over the past 15 months, and the show is raking in more than $2 million a week, Bloomberg reported.

Voyage is set to keep running in London for years and is expected to open in cities such as New York, Las Vegas, Singapore, and Sydney in due course, the outlet reported. Being able to appear in several places at once is, of course, the beauty of the technology behind the show.

It's no surprise that other acts want to follow suit, even if it involves the tedious process of greenscreen motion capture. Per Sundin, CEO of lead Voyage investor Pophouse Entertainment, told Bloomberg this month: "We already have been talking to some artists that really want to do this."

I can totally see why the idea appeals to some performers, particularly those at the wrong end of their careers. It beats actually having to perform night after night, after all.

So, if you missed out on getting a ticket for TayTay's Eras tour (or live in a part of the world where she didn't play), would a Voyage-type experience be better than seeing her concert film? I think the answer for many fans is going to be a resounding yes.

It also means that bands can keep performing for their fans, regardless of whether their members are still with us. Thank you for the music, indeed.

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