Mamma Mia! London's new ABBA exhibition

As the pitter-patter sound of rain falls from the wall speakers, our guide, Katy, jokingly whips out an umbrella, and welcomes us to a storm-hit Sydney Showgrounds, on the evening of March 3, 1977. Video screens show archive footage of about 20,000 umbrella-wielding fans chanting "We Want ABBA! We Want ABBA!" and in a mock-up of one of the caravan-style dressing rooms is the stained gold and white cape that Anni-Frid Lyngstad (Frida, the dark-haired one) was wearing when she slipped on the wet stage in arguably the most iconic moment of ABBA's only Australian tour, which jammed 11 concerts, across four cities, into 13 feverish days.

Our surreal "trip" Down Under is part of ABBA: Super Troupers, a fun, nostalgia-inducing tribute exhibition in London's Southbank Centre, a short hop from Waterloo train station. Waterloo is one of dozens of ABBA hits that we hear, shake our hips and hum along to on this immersive hour-long retrospective, which is backed by Bjorn Ulvaeus, who was once the "clean-shaven one" and now sports a beard like his former band-mate, Benny Andersson.

There are nine themed rooms, which inventively chart the band's rise, demise and legacy, with period furnishings and a smorgasbord of memorabilia gleaned from various sources, including glitzy jumpsuits, vintage LP artwork and photographs from Stockholm's ABBA Museum. The voice of Jarvis Cocker, the lead singer of Pulp and a devoted ABBA fan, occasionally pipes up, his commentary drenched with puns that play on famous lyrics from the Swedish quartet, while our guide, Katy, adds some intriguing, theatrical insights of her own.

To kick-start the tour she'd led us past a vinyl-shaped door and into a dark, tube-shaped chamber that smelled of fresh paint, but resembled an intimate dance floor with a groovy ceiling disco ball. As the opening beats of Super Troupers filled the air, five 50-something female friends in our group began to boogie. Katy then ushered us into a typical British living room from the 1970s, whose decor was as drab and dreary as the content pouring from the wooden TV.

News clips portrayed Blighty's social and political unrest, with an embattled Conservative government clinging to power, and the country split over its membership of the European Economic Community (EEC), the precursor to today's European Union. It was little wonder, said Katy, that in such bleak times an act as bright and breezy as ABBA caught the public's "escapist" imagination.

One of the band's finest hours is explored in the next room, a champagne-dotted recreation of the Napoleon Suite of Brighton's Grand Hotel, where Bjorn, Benny, Frida and Agnetha Faltskog (the blonde one) celebrated their 1974 Eurovision Song Contest victory with Waterloo, conquering competition that included Britain's entry, Melbourne-raised Olivia-Newton John. As well as a TV replay of that night, there are glittering replicas of the costumes the band wore, the original blue beanie that Agnetha had on, and a copy of Bjorn's star guitar.

Walking, Narnia-like through the hotel's wardrobe, we're transported to an enchanted forest-like setting that evokes the woodsy Swedish folk music festivals where the band's seeds were sowed. Talented solo performers, the foursome formed ABBA in 1972, not long after Bjorn and Agnetha, and Benny and Frida became romantically entwined.

In a replica of the band's Stockholm Polar Studios, we play producer, fiddling with the levels of classic ABBA tunes at the mixing desk, and crowing along, karaoke-style, to Dancing Queen in a singing booth. Melancholy pervades an apartment-style room, which has half-packed boxes and touches on the couples' break-ups and the band's split in the early 1980s.

Yet things end on a high note. As we "take off" in a room designed like ABBA's private jet, tunes like Thank You for the Music play as the plane windows reveal the band's influence on popular culture, and how ABBA-inspired movies like Muriel's Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, helped spark interest among a new generation of fans.


There's also mention of Mamma Mia! – the movie sequel of which is out in July and titled: Here We Go Again. Exiting the exhibition, everyone in our group, from Millennials to pensioners, is smiling. A few are rubbing tears from their eyes. "Fittingly cheesy" is the verdict from one of the boogying 50-somethings. It's hard to disagree.




ABBA: Super Troupers is on at London Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall until April 29, 2018. Tickets are priced between £17.50-27.50 ($30-$48), including booking fee;

Steve McKenna was a guest of Visit Britain