Last year, I managed to miss out on both A Celebration of the Music of Abba in Hyde Park and the Benny Andersson Band on Hampstead Heath, by foolishly taking holidays at the wrong time. So when differentkate invited me to see a concert performance of Benny and Bjorn’s 1995 musical Kristina at the Albert Hall, I jumped at the chance.
Kristina från Duvemåla, as it’s called in Swedish – though the title and lyrics were translated for the UK performance, of which more in a moment – tells the story of a family of Swedish immigrants to the US in the 1850s. It’s rather a bleak tale, and although the relentless misery is punctuated by moments of light and humour, the overall tone is rather a mournful one.
Some clever thought had gone into the staging: I was expecting a fairly static production with singers in evening dress, but there was an effort at costume, and some minimal but effective acting, which along with a screen which displayed some (not all) of the lyrics was enough to bring the story to life. I wouldn’t say I caught the finer nuances of every number, but I didn’t ever feel as though I was struggling to work out what was going on.
The lyrics were perhaps not the best I’ve ever read, but everything rhymed and made approximate sense, which I think is as much as you can hope for in a translation of a three-hour musical from Swedish into English. In a proper staged production it doesn’t matter if the words are rubbish, because each lyric only lasts a moment, but when you’re projecting the words onto a screen above the audience’s heads any want of literary merit becomes more pronounced. Still, nobody listens to ABBA for the lyrics, right? And as with ABBA, while the words might not always be spot-on, the underlying emotions are perfectly intelligible and no less potent for being expressed slightly awkwardly.
I was expecting that the music would all sound like ABBA too, but actually it was more interesting than that. Benny still has the ear for a melody that he always did, but the interplay of themes and the orchestration are unexpectedly complex and unusual. I’d like to hear it again, because I think I’d get more from it a second and third time.
Helen Sjöholm as Kristina sounds very much like Agnetha Fältskog, which I suppose is why she’s also the singer in Benny’s band. It’s not quite a musical theatre voice, and in duet with Russell Watson as her husband Karl Oskar it struggles to compete, but overall hers was a charming performance, suffused with a warmth that radiated as far as our seats, right across the other side of the Hall.
I didn’t know, or had forgotten, that Russell Watson was in it, and as he started to sing for the first time I thought gosh, I wonder who this is, he’s really good! – so I had a look at the programme and realised that this was not news. Honourable mentions, too, for the other two principals, Louise Pitre and Kevin Odekirk, who were both also very engaging and helped to tell a convincing story with a bare minimum of materials, in a space which doesn’t lend itself to intimacy.
I don’t know whether Kristina would succeed as a stage musical in its current English form, but I’d like to see someone try it. It might perhaps need to be made a bit shorter, and slightly less doom-laden, but there was a lot to enjoy and I think it deserves a wider audience.