Theatre Royal Bath until 3 June Words by Melissa Blease
Writer/actor Ian Hallard thinks he might have been an ABBA fan since before he was born. “My mum was pregnant with me when ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest with Waterloo in 1974, so I guess it all started in the womb,” he told me, in a recent interview for The Bath Magazine; “I wasn’t some sort of immaculate ABBA conception, but ABBA became the soundtrack to my life that’s never left me.”
Some 49 years later, and Hallard, it seems, couldn’t escape his fate even if he wanted to; he’s used his ABBA superfandom as a base for a story about who we become as we navigate our way through grown-up life, and the vital role that enduring friendship (and the trials and tribulations thereof) plays as we negotiate the, erm, voyage (sorry, I just couldn’t help myself there).
On one level, The Way Old Friends Do is a super-camp, froth-laden comic melodrama about the birth of the world’s first drag ABBA tribute act. But beneath the spangly surface, there’s a much more poignant tale to be told.
As an evocative voiceover courtesy of the late, great Paul O’Grady tells us as the lights go down, it’s 1988 and old school friends Peter and Edward have found themselves reunited via the medium of Grindr (if you don’t know, you don’t know). Both men are gay, but Peter is only out and proud about his ABBA superfan status, while Edward is established in a long-term civil partnership with a much older man. The pair share memories of a disastrous school concert they performed in singing ABBA songs… and so it comes to pass that they agree to give it another go as an ABBA tribute act starring Peter as Agnetha and Edward as Frida. But as we (and ABBA themselves) know, day-to-day life for a close-knit touring foursome as the years roll along isn’t all glam’n’glitter – and the reality of real life itself is generally far from fabulous.
It’s easy to assume that, just because Hallard wrote the script, he’s guaranteed to ace his co-starring role as Peter. I’d wager, however, that multi-tasking in this way makes for a tougher job for Hallard – if he can’t get his own part right, who can? Fortunately he gets it very right indeed: Peter is warm, sensitive, funny, easy to relate to and entirely likeable. James Bradshaw’s Edward, meanwhile, adds deeper (and definitely darker) texture and context to the double-act chemistry between the two old friends; as super-camp, super-witty and almost brazenly shameless in his spotlight-grabbing gaiety as he appears, at first, to be, the pain and vulnerability that refuses to remain hidden beneath the superficial exuberance is palpable.
Elsewhere, ditzy actress Jodie (Rose Shalloo) works in perfect comedy timing harmony with the eccentric Mrs Campbell(Sara Crowe) as they morph into the world’s unlikeliest Björn and Benny, feisty tour manager Sally (Donna Berlin) regulates proceedings iron fist/velvet glove stylee every step of the way and Andrew Horton as disruptive young interloper Christian channels Matt Damon’s Talented Mr Ripley as his innocent mask eventually slips to show his true sinister colours.
Beautifully directed by Mark (Nolly; The League of Gentlemen; Sherlock; Dracula; Doctor Who and a heck of a lot more besides) Gatiss (aka Hallard’s husband of 15+ years), set against Janet Bird’s clever rotating backdrops and, of course, laden with blasts of ABBA’s greatest hits, the production maintains smooth, attention-grabbing momentum throughout, despite occasionally treading a little bit too close to stereotypical sitcom plot device territory – those in search of a substantial deep dive into issues around big hitter topics such as sexuality, generational homophobia, alcoholism and betrayal (all of which are raised but rather speedily glossed over) may find themselves left feeling a little bit unsatisfied. But overall, there’s an authentically tender warmth to proceedings that couldn’t fail to melt even the hardest of hearts… and, if you happen to be in search of a masterclass in donning nylon tights, squeezing into lycra and/or negotiating dance steps while wearing high-heeled platform boots, you’ve definitely come to the right place.