Writer: Ian Hallard
Director: Mark Gatiss
There comes a time in the life of even the most erudite devotees of highbrow music when they just give up being snobby and admit they love ABBA as much as Bach or Beethoven. The realisation may come sooner, or later, but it always comes. So here is a warning for those most cerebral of theatre-aficionados tempted to presume a comedy about a drag ABBA tribute band might be, perhaps, a little too outré for them. Give in now. You are inevitably and inescapably destined to enjoy The Way Old Friends Do. Ian Hallard’s love letter to ABBA and to the bitter-sweet vagaries of friendship is a sweet, juicy, peach of a show that is physically impossible not to savour.
It is the early 90s. Long-time school-friends Peter (Hallard who plays his central character to perfection) and his apparently straight buddy Eddie (James Bradshaw) share a devotion to ABBA that comes close to maniacal. But their rash decision to stage one of the Swedish songsters’ tunes at the school leavers’ concert has unfortunate consequences. The boys fall out and lose touch.
Fast forward 25 years. Recently made redundant from his job in a Birmingham library, the now bisexual Peter whiles away his time on Grindr. Attracted by an impressively well-proportioned photo (it is not one that features a face) he invites over a mysterious online stranger. That it should be Eddie who walks through the door is the kind of plot contrivance a writer can only get away with once. Let’s give Hallard a break with this one. Now married to a wealthy ex-banker and ensconced in a Henley-On-Thames mansion, the “lady of leisure” Eddie also has time on his hands. What better way could the duo devise to fill their time, banish bad memories, and rekindle their friendship than with a drag tribute to their shared Swedish passion?
Having duelled over which middle-aged diva gets to play the smouldering, dusky-haired Frida, the boys recruit local am-dram queen Sally (a pitch-perfect Donna Berlin) as production guru. Auditions attract failing actor Jodie (Rose Shalloo on top form) to play Björn. Jodie is not the sharpest tool in the box; indeed, she once corrected a director who claimed an Oliver was an actor rather than an award. But her year as an au pair in Sweden convinces her she can handle the hurdy-gurdy accent. The fourth place in the band, that of nodding key-board player Benny, is taken by a bewildered, pill-popping pianist called Mrs Campbell (Sara Crowe). In a sublime piece of comedy character-building, Scots-born Mrs Campbell is too mean to replace her kitchen calendar. Consequently, and to her enduring confusion, she expects an annual visit from her sister that never actually takes place.
Against all the odds the band is a success with local hen nights and golf clubs. Peter and Eddie’s friendship is reborn (or possibly re-Björn). Of course, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a comedy drama in possession of a stonkingly good narrative, must be in want of an antagonist. Into the mix comes Abba-loving Aussie hunk Christian (Andrew Horton channelling Guy Pearce from iconic 90s movie Priscilla, Queen of the Desert). Can the duo’s friendship survive the presence of a dishy and mysterious stranger who seems as if he is prepared to do anything to get into the band? As the lyrics of ABBA’s Waterloo reminds us “the history book on the shelf Is always repeating itself”. Peter and Eddie’s friendship may not be as strong as it appears.
Hallard’s script, spikily directed here by husband Mark Gatiss, is a veritable goldmine of deliciously funny one-liners. Bemoaning his mother’s diminishing mental faculties, Eddie says “she has never been the same since the BBC cancelled Bergerac”. But it also a touching, tender, and brilliantly executed meditation on the nature of enduring friendship, and of the challenges involved in coming out late in life. The symmetry between Peter’s dissembling as a child and that of the adult Eddie adds welcome dramatic bite to The Way Old Friends Do. Hallard is as fine a theatre-maker as he is comedy writer.
Marc Frankum’s casting is masterful throughout, but it is Sara Crowe’s turn as the reality-challenged Mrs Campbell that steals the show. “This is all going to be such fun” the character intones periodically throughout the show, more in hope than expectation. She is right though; this show really is an awful lot of fun.
Runs until 15 April 2023 then on UK tour until 10 June 2023