Writer: Ian Hallard
Director: Mark Gatiss
In the programme, writer Ian Hallard says that imagining his dream role was the spark from which The Way Old Friends Do was kindled. And here he is, playing that very role. Sort of.
In the 1980s, two misfit Brummie schoolfriends pluck up the courage to come out to one another: Edward is gay; Peter is an ABBA fan. After school, they go their separate ways until a bizarre chance meeting some thirty years later. By now, Peter is single and has come to terms with his bisexuality, while Edward is in a happy civil partnership; but they are otherwise largely unchanged. When their stage manager friend, Sally, is distraught that an ABBA tribute booked at her theatre has had to cry off, the unlikely concept for Head Over Heels, an ABBA tribute with a twist starring Edward and Peter, is born. They just need to cast a couple of girls – enter motormouth Jodie and the matronly Mrs Campbell and the lineup is complete. Their success as a one-off is such that they continue performing. But, as in so many bands, tensions arise and the appearance of improbably good-looking ABBA superfan Christian disrupts everything. Can Head Over Heels and the friendships forged in its creation survive?
It’s hard to believe that this is Hallard’s first outing as a writer. The whole is assured and full of humour; indeed it is a positive joy to watch from start to finish. The pace is exactly right and the jokes all land thanks to the sure hand of the director, Mark Gatiss – assisted by an ingenious set designed by Janet Bird and incorporating a revolve to easily change scenes. It would be so easy to go over the top and stray into farce given the storyline, but Gatiss and the cast ensure that doesn’t happen: this enables the hilariously funny first half to give way to a more introspective second half in which relationships are tested. Even the Brummie voices are authentic and not simply played as comedy accents, a relief, no doubt, to the local audience.
The strength, however, lies in Hallard’s characters and his obvious affection for them. All are three-dimensional and we immediately warm to the members of the band, rooting for them all along the way. Rose Shalloo brings us a Jodie full of nervous energy whose mouth goes into overdrive when nervous. Her performance is comedy gold. Donna Berlin’s Sally is warm and reassuring, a solid presence. At this performance, Tariyé Peterside played Mrs Campbell filling the stage with slightly confused warm energy. Andrew Horton brings an oleaginous edge to Christian as his character’s storyline develops. Ian Hallard pitches Peter exactly right as he seeks to make Head Over Heels as good as they can be, while James Bradshaw gives us Edward’s journey stupendously well – a masterclass in understated realism counterpointed with superb comedy timing.
There’s so much to love about The Way Old Friends Do, whether you’re an ABBA fan or not. It’s full of laugh-out-loud moments but also each character goes on a real journey, one that we can believe in and, indeed, become invested in. If you needed proof that People Need Love and that Love Isn’t Easy (But Sure Is Hard Enough) and you can only make time for one ABBA tribute-themed comedy-drama this year, thenNo Doubt About It,make it The Way Old Friends Do – it’s bang on the Money, Money, Money.
Runs until: 4 March 2023 and on tour