Abba Voyage: Thank you for the music (even if it's not really you...)

Resident Dancing Queen Gail Bell steps back in time to the 1970s and into the future as she experiences the virtual Abba Voyage show for herself. She finds it's bonkers – but also brilliant

Abba Voyage is a creative and technical triumph. Picture by Johan Persson
Abba Voyage is a creative and technical triumph. Picture by Johan Persson

WELL, what can you say about a band that emerges ethereally from the bowels of some imaginary shamballa in east London, popping up from underneath the 'stage', spotlit bit-by-bit – heads, torso, legs – rather than saunter from the wings in conventional fashion?

Nothing was conventional about this Super Trouper show; certainly not the unearthly entrance of four shimmery 'Abbatars' to sing and dance – and, yes, chat a little too – for adoring fans packed into the purpose-built Abba Arena in Pudding Mill Lane, Stratford.

Abba members Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad looked good enough to be real, from their 70s heyday outfits to the hairstyles and dance moves, so that – give or take a glassy eye or two – you find yourself ready to cast off on an illusory Voyage like no other.

This was Abba Voyage, a show where the real artists stay away and send their 3D digital body doubles to do the work for them. And what a good job they did – sending the crowd into an Abba frenzy as if it were actual humans performing live on 'stage' instead of computer-generated avatars on a 65-million pixel LCD screen.

But this was a time to suspend disbelief and embrace the CGI (computer generated imagery) wizardry of it all, which comprised countless computing hours from Industrial Light & Magic, the visual effects company founded by Star Wars creator George Lucas.

It is a feast for eyes and ears, including special effects lighting which one minute has you looking deep into the ultimate starry night (Fernando) until another distraction: multiple chains of sparkly light beads hovering just above your head, seemingly close enough to touch, yet just another tantalising illusion.

All this might serve to take your eyes off the action on the main 'stage' – spoiler alert: it is all a screen - but with the heaving dance floor section situated between the digital foursome up front and the seated area in the centre where we were seated, it was difficult to gauge how realistic the digital doppelgangers might look close-up.

Not that it mattered; clever use of screens either side of the arena projected the avatars – created by filming the real Abba stars in motion-capture suits – to larger-than-life size proportions in big screen pop-style videos, and this, along with Abba's recorded voices and an actual live 10-piece band on an actual stage, meant the wobbly line between real and fake blurred that little bit further.

For a show just 95 minutes long with no interval, everything counts. Yes, there is hit after crowd-pleasing hit – Knowing Me, Knowing You, The Winner Takes It All, Dancing Queen et al – but also a few songs from the group's new Voyage album (the first in 40 years) including I Can Be That Woman and the reflective I Still Have Faith in You.

There is also some light-hearted chit-chat 'off stage' with the neanimorphic artists still sporting their very best looks from decades ago – albeit in bright new costumes designed in collaboration with Dolce & Gabbana.

At the start of this mega concert-cum-theatre extravaganza, a poker-faced Benny Andersson jokingly declares: "This is really me; I just look really good for my age."

Then there is a section where Björn Ulvaeus reminds us that the UK judges gave Abba's massive hit, Waterloo, "nul points" during the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, followed by some archive footage of the real group in celebration mode at that time.

This didn't segue into an avatar performance of Waterloo, unfortunately, but there were plenty of other hits, notably Dancing Queen which had even the oldest seated spectators up out of their seats and bopping away nostalgically to – presumably – the soundtrack of their youth.

More than one million dancing queens have already seen the virtual extravaganza Abba Voyage, which is based in London until at least next May. Picture by Johan Persson
More than one million dancing queens have already seen the virtual extravaganza Abba Voyage, which is based in London until at least next May. Picture by Johan Persson

As for the general age of those packed into the 3,000 capacity arena (which houses 291 speakers, producing 870,000 watts of audio amplification, according to my media briefing notes), there were boy groups, girl groups and younger couples who would not even have been born when Abba were performing live.

Hit musical Mamma Mia! may have helped draw a new generation to the group's music, but Abba Voyage is sure to draw even more – the show welcomed its one millionth customer in April, hitting the milestone in just 11 months and exceeding the expectations of Abba themselves.

"I could never have dreamt it would be a million before the end of one year; I was nervous up until the first preview with an audience," said Björn Ulvaeus.

"But when I saw it with an audience, I knew it was working."

In a show full of surprises, perhaps the biggest one of all is at the end when the Swedish fab four come on, looking as they do now, to take one last bow – or, do they? We are (almost) fooled again, as septuagenarian Abbatars have the last laugh in a virtual curtain call.

Nobody cares; we rise out of our seats and dance again, as in a dream, in too deep now to let rationality spoil the fun. We are all in this charade together – it's all bonkers but the message is very clear from everyone who sings along to one of the last songs: Thank You For the Music (even if it's not really you).

Ticket options for Abba Voyage include seated, dancefloor/standing or a private dance booth. The show is now booking until January 29 2024. abbavoyage.com