Crossrail's not the only big London project launching this week. The Abba Arena in Stratford is opening too, the hexagonal amphitheatre where four Swedish avatars will pretend to perform to their back catalogue. What's more construction's taken less than a year to complete and it's actually opening on the day they said it would. You don't get that with a purple railway.
Officially the arena opens on Friday, which you can tell because they've attached a countdown sign to a lamppost alongside and the number of days is currently on 4. But every big opening needs a dress rehearsal, even when the performers don't exist, so that's what's been going on this weekend.
The first dress rehearsal was on Friday night and apparently Benny turned up and sat incognito in the auditorium. Attendees were sworn to secrecy, and successfully so, a bit like the Olympic Opening Ceremony dress rehearsals ten years earlier. Further shows took place on Saturday and Sunday, perhaps now veering more towards previews than rehearsals, and I unintentionally found myself in the heart of the crowd yesterday afternoon. Timecheck: Performances will take place at 3pm at weekends, and at 7.45pm every night except Tuesday and Wednesday. Overall running time is 90 minutes (without an interval).
I thought the DLR was a lot busier than usual but it wasn't initially obvious why. The crowd waiting at Stratford had a 'mates and families' vibe, very much the sort of out-of-towners you usually see feeding into North Greenwich clutching a £50 ticket for a big name gig. So I was surprised when they all got off one stop down the line, well over a hundred strong, then twigged as they surged down towards London's newest performance mecca. Transportcheck: The extra-wide stairwells at Pudding Mill Lane coped admirably but the two ticket validators at the foot of the steps struggled, especially given the high percentage of concertgoers unfamiliar with contactless travel.
The arena couldn't be more perfectly located, you just step out of the station and the entrance is the other side of a (closed) road. Here a merry operative directs the crowd into one of two orange-taped queueing slaloms, "seated to the right, dancing to the left". The two halves have roughly similar capacities and are similarly eye-wateringly priced. Whichever way you go a ticket check and a security patdown follow, and then you're into the outer courtyard where the refreshment options are. When they say the arena opens 1 hour and 45 minutes before the show starts, what they're hoping is that you'll spend as long as possible drinking and nibbling out here. Pricecheck: Bottles of prosecco sell from £40, wine from £26, cans of gin and tonic are £6.50 and a can of Coca-Cola is £2.95. Details of food concessions have not yet been released.
There's also merch, some of it on sale outside from smiley staff stationed behind a silver stall resembling travelling luggage. I spotted t-shirts, reusable bags in multiple shades, some kind of belted top and what might have been a programme (or the modern equivalent). A few attendees were so keen to reach the merchpoint that they strode across the wildflower border that's magically appeared here over the last few weeks, and may not last much longer if miscreants keep taking selfies while standing in it. Instagramcheck: The exterior looks a lotmoreimpressive after sunset with the rainbow lettering and rainbow lighting in sharp contrast to the darkening sky.
Opening night for the public is Friday, just as they said it would be, but a sign says that the whole of Barbers Road is going to be closed on Thursday from 10am to midnight so I bet some massive promotional junket is going to sneak in a day early. I'm tempted to wander down and listen from nearby to see what the chosen setlist might be. Whatever, the arrival of the first crowds is an amazing transformation for a backwater that's not been this busy since the heady days of summer 2012, and all thanks to a band who aren't even going to turn up. Abbacheck: Hurrah if you're going soon, or even if you've been already, and I hope to bring you a review before the summer's out.
And in what's perfect timing for concertgoers, the waste management centre immediately nextdoor appears to have entered a demolition phase. Last month lorryfuls of icky liquids were still being delivered for processing, queueing outside the arena as they waited to gain entrance, but now its outbuildings are being knocked down and the yard's being cleared. Meanwhile round the corner on Cooks Road the longstanding warehouse and abandoned oil depot have very recently been reduced to piles of rubble in what's the opening phase of a separate riverside development. It's all going to be flats around here, inexorably, eventually, as indeed is the Abba Arena's ultimate fate. Best come dancing soon before new neighbours move in and complain about the noise.