ABBA Voyage, The ABBA Arena

In Jim Steinmeyer’s fine history of stage magic, Hiding The Elephant, he goes into detail on the history of Pepper’s Ghost, the illusion that captivated Victorian London and revolutionised the tricknology of magic performance. The ghost’s inventor, engineer Henry Dircks, wasn’t the first to conceptualise the technique, which is simple enough – the arrangement of mirrors so that action under the stage (a performer playing the “ghost”) is projected onto an area of it, meaning performers appear and disappear at spectral will. The problem Dircks solved for the magician John Henry Pepper was one of scale. Previous designs for the ghost, or a ghost-like effect, would have worked, but would also have required the construction of an entire bespoke auditorium to perform it in.

If Pepper and Dircks’ actual ghosts are still hanging around London, they will surely appreciate the ABBA Arena, a fulfilment of the original mad illusionist’s dream of building an entire theatre to perform a Pepper’s Ghost trick. The gimmick by which the digitised “ABBAtars” appear on stage was revealed before ABBA Voyage even opened. You are watching a concoction of lights and video screens around a superflat reflective surface, on which the recordings of the ABBAtars are projected to give the illusion of a stage and depth. 

In the band’s 70s heyday, episodes of Doctor Who would often use reflective sheets like this to give the impression that some hi-tech base was vaster than the studio confines allowed. ABBA Voyage is brilliantly done, with a precision to match any of the group’s perfectonist studio work. But there is something wonderfully ABBA-ish about the fact that this very 21st century concert may center on what is basically a colossal piece of tinfoil.

The instruction you’re given before the curtain rises – do not give away the secrets of Voyage – also conjures a stage magic vibe. All the details of Voyage are available – costumes, setlists, mechanisms. If you choose to look, that is, and I didn’t. Illusion is about the management of expectations – treat an experience as magical and it becomes more so. And in fact, the best moments of Voyage are often the ones least spoil-able, the transitions or momentary effects. Yes, you’ve seen the ABBAtars in their TRON lightsuits, but it’s the way those costumes are introduced that makes you gasp or cheer.

ABBA never quite cracked America; they are unlikely ever to get a Vegas show. So Voyage is a proof of concept both for that lost ABBA residency and for the idea of a bespoke, long-running Vegas-style spectacular in London. With its stars captured in fully digitised youth, the show is wonderfully future-proofed – all you need are technicians and a decent live band and it could run indefinitely. There are enough certifiable bangers left off the set that it could also refresh itself after a while, should a need arise to lure former visitors back.

Still, the idea of ABBA Voyage may be – and has proved to be – an obvious banker, but that shouldn’t cover up the fact that tricky creative choices went into making it. ABBA are a band of two halves: a group firmly rooted in a particular decade and pop moment, the perfect 70s blend of kitsch and earnestness, artifice and melody, glamour and soap opera. And then a phenomenon who found a second life as the kings and queens of the jukebox musical, a band whose songs lend themselves to narrative and who won a whole new fanbase because of that.

ABBA Voyage combines the two – for chunks of the show they’re being as honest as a digitised band can be, offering a perfected version of what seeing an ABBA performance in their heyday might have been like. The music choices reflect that – this is, ironically, a version of ABBA with a strong emphasis on the idea of them as a working, gigging band. If your favourite version of the group is the chugging, glam rocking ABBA of “Summer Night City” and “Does Your Mother Know” you will like Voyage even more.

But there are also bits of something more fantastical, with narratives invented entirely for this show*, plus new songs which seemed metatextual enough on record and now absolutely scream at you that they’re about The ABBA Story (“Don’t Shut Me Down” demands a very literal reading indeed). There’s also enough tender touches between our recreated stars to keep the fan service detectors busy.

For a lot of acts, it wouldn’t work – the illusion of performance and the trickeries of immersive theatre would clash, a sweet-and-savoury collision of authenticity and artifice. With ABBA, who’ve been careful curators of their work for 30 years, and embracers of the theatrical for, oh, 50, it’s fine. It helps too that they’re a band with a stack of songs about lost youth and the compromises of adulthood. Sometimes I thought “this is amazing, this will be the future of legacy pop entertainment”. Other times I thought “this is amazing, only ABBA could pull this off”.

Voyage has been hyped as a revolutionary, innovative show. But its relationship to the future of pop is a thornier question than “is it any good?”. It arrived before the current furore around generative AI and music, which seems to offer a different answer to the question “can we and should we recreate old and lost stars, and what can we have them do?”. It also arrived in the middle of a second trend – the rise in song catalogue purchases and investments, and the beginnings of more aggressive efforts to monetise older songs, which is leaving some observers feeling queasy. (Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene has a good overview of the state of retro play here.)

Voyage is an intervention and an example – witting or not – in both these arguments. And in both cases what makes it stand out is its craft – the care and attention to detail. ABBA Voyage is strictly speaking on the wrong side of the industry-wide division between exploiting old tracks and promoting new artists, but it’s also an elegant move by an artist to set and control their own legacy. Beautifully executed, too. It’s perhaps an odd thing to say about a big, gaudy experiential show with its own bespoke arena – including an uncanny virtual recreation of Swedish drink prices – but Voyage could have been a whole lot crasser. It does the obvious stuff very well but it does a lot more too: it’s not just a nostalgia trip, and wouldn’t work so well if it was.

The question of Voyage’s relationship to AI is more vexed. Voyage is at once a glorious technological feat and a defiantly analog one. Four pensioners, wired up to motion capture sensors for weeks to capture and recreate the gestures and expressions they made when younger, before computer modelling turns them into animated recreations. It’s the kind of thing the mouthier promoters of AI would both respect and lust to replace – all that (shudder) human labour and cost when vocal and image and video models will come up with something almost as magical, if you give it time. There’s a gap in that “almost” as large as the market will bear. ABBA’s curatorial care stands in contrast, at least currently, to the kind of banal stylistic mix-and-match we’re seeing touted as AI music’s unique selling points. In a future of true pop eidolons maybe ABBA will sing anything we want. Why do we want it?

The word most often used for the ABBA Voyage recreations isn’t the mildly cringe “ABBAtars” but “holograms”. They aren’t holograms, any more than Pepper’s Ghost is. But holograms works as a word because, like the Tron imagery, it speaks not to the present but to an older future, the future of ABBA’s past. The first true hologram I saw was on National Geographic magazine in 1984, a picture of an Eagle that was slightly less impressive than the lenticular Daley Thompson badges you got in cereal packets. Holograms in the sense ABBA want to invoke date from 1977, a princess on loop in a droid’s memory: these living hololograms were science-fiction, and still are. ABBA Voyage is futuristic, but part of what makes it moving is that it’s the future that existed when ABBA broke up, the holographic future of 1982, full of lights and wonder, forever being overtaken by a shabbier reality.

*this was the only part that didn’t really work for me, though people I went with loved it. It’s either a fabulous animated video for two classic songs, or excerpts from an abandoned 90s ABBA LaserDisc game. Of course, this being ABBA, it can be both.