The man who keeps the Mamma Mia! dancing queens in step
PUBLISHED: 16:03 21 March 2017 | UPDATED: 17:02 21 March 2017
Tour dance captain Jamie Wilkin is in charge of the dance numbers in the ABBA mega-musical still packing them in at the Norwich Theatre Royal.
With a storyline to tug at every heart string and some of the best songs on the planet, it’s no wonder Mamma Mia! has been pulling in the crowds at Norwich Theatre Royal.
Its sunny setting – a Greek island of blue skies and azure seas - certainly helps to create the feel-good factor for audiences, but it is the deep affection in which the music of ABBA is held by so many that keeps the audiences coming – so much so that over 60 million people have now seen it worldwide.
Responsible for keeping the dance moves on track during a gruelling year-long tour around the country is dance captain Jamie Wilkin.
He could be forgiven for taking a well-earned break and putting his feet up between shows. But such is the drive to ensure the show’s high standards are maintained wherever it goes, that this ‘super trooper’ is rarely in rest mode as he strives to keep the show’s ‘dancing queens’ on their toes.
Jamie’s job is to make sure the dance numbers are performed exactly the same way 365-days-a-year, whether it is in Southampton, Edinburgh or Norwich, a big ask when everyone in the 30-strong cast has to dance.
“We have to make sure it is done to the 100 per cent standard, whether it is on opening night or the last night of the contract,” he said.
There have now been 50 productions across the globe in 16 different languages – from America to Australia, across Europe to South Africa and numerous stops in between, as well as the highly successful 2008 movie starring Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan - and maintaining consistency in quality throughout is paramount.
Jamie was with the show in the West End, joining in 2002. “I was Eddie [one of the young male characters]. That was in the first-ever theatre we were in which was the Prince Edward in the West End, before the show moved to The Prince of Wales. And then I left for about six to seven years and I ended coming back into the show. A friend of mine on the show broke his hand as I was on the way out to see him when Mamma Mia! was in Monte Carlo and I ended up filling in for him for a while. And then I came back as dance captain and assistant choreographer three years ago in 2013.”
The show has toured internationally for two years and is in Norwich on its first-ever UK tour. “I think the market has been there for a while,” Jamie said, “but London has been the flagship – it’s been going for 18 years there now, so they have been very careful to make sure that is the premium production in this country. But now, 18 years on, it can be seen by the masses round the country.”
Jamie was involved in setting the choreography as the show for the tour was being put together during four and a half weeks of rehearsals in London. Now during the run he takes regular ‘clean-up calls’, usually after daily warm-ups, to keep the choreography tight.
“To someone in the audience they might not see the little mistakes, but I see dropped counts or dropped arms or little imperfections – and it’s my job to make sure that I know they are there and correct them. Also because a show evolves and timing changes, I have to make sure they drop back to where they were.”
Nichola Treherne, associate choreographer for the show worldwide and on the movie, checks up on a regular basis: “She sees little details that I may not always see and she’ll say ‘Can you just make sure that that is right?’ and then I can see that it’s not quite right and we make sure it goes back to what it always should be.”
“Every day I take a warm up for the whole company, from the young guys to the older members of the cast to make sure everyone is warm for the show. We do 15 minutes physical after a vocal warm up, just making sure everybody is in the zone for what they have got to do, from the youngest 19-year-old just out of college to the older members of the cast. We have to make sure everybody’s body stays at its best all through the year, to keep them free from aches and pains, colds and coughs, and to make sure they stay 100% tip-top.
“Everybody in the cast dances and it’s hard because we have varying degrees of dancers, from those who have danced for years and years to those who have really not done many steps, and we have to make sure that when we go into rehearsals that we have got them to a standard that is passable. But as the year goes on, they get better and better and it becomes second nature to them.”
Jamie thinks those with the hardest job of all in the cast are the understudies. “Those who have to understudy the Dynamos and the dads have the hardest job and generally they tend to be actors and singers, but they have to learn all the choreography for their own track and then they have to learn all the choreography for each of their covers. One of the girls covers all of the three Dynamos, so she has to know all of their choreography, all of their vocals and all of their scripts – they have the most difficult job in the show.”
There are other challenges too – including a memorable dance in flippers to Lay All Your Love On Me. “It is very, very difficult and I’ve seen many injures. It looks like they are doing it with ease and it is so much fun – everyone loves that number – but it is really difficult to keep your balance because for bits in the number you are on one leg, and moving vigorously. I’ve seen people turn their ankles but carry on and then finish and have to go off the show. But although it’s tough, the reaction from the audience makes you enjoy it all the more because it gets of the biggest cheers of the night.”
In addition to the friendships and relationships between the older characters, there is also a younger element with the daughter and her two girlfriends, and the large group of younger lads and lasses – and there is lots of cheeky laddish behaviour providing many comedic moments.
“When we audition people, especially the younger guys, we’re not just looking for those who can dance, sing and act - they have to have personality as well. And the show does have a boisterous side and it does bubble over. You can feel it in the numbers like Lay All Your Love On Me with the flippers, when the cast is really drawing on the audience and reacting to what the audience is giving them. That’s another one of my jobs – to let them bubble to where they are simmering but not to let them boil over.
“I think everybody can relate to the story – whether it be mothers and daughters, whether it be friends, whether it be sons or fathers. My own favourite character is Pepper [another of the younger make characters] probably because I see a younger me in him – a cheeky little chappie,” Jamie said.
“The relationships in this show go across so many boundaries and I think what people don’t realise is although it’s brilliantly set to that music of ABBA, that the storyline is actually very, very good. They managed to weave such clever text into already brilliant music and I think that’s what has given it its longevity – and it’s the only show of its type that has really got that right.
“Whether it is in Oman, in South Africa, or here in the UK, it gets the same response anywhere and it’s crazy that happens – and it’s because of the relationships in the show and the fact it has brilliant music and brilliant choreography that it’s still such a spectacle now.”
• Mamma Mia!, Norwich Theatre Royal, until March 25, various times, returns only, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk