Review by Daz Gale
You can never have too much ABBA related shows, can you? While London audiences can currently take their pick between Mamma Mia!, ABBA Voyage and Mamma Mia! The Party, there is still an appetite for more – and until we get a stage show based on Cher’s iconic character from Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again! there is still room for more. An ABBA show with a difference is currently dancing up a storm for its West End debut, temporarily filling the newly vacant Criterion Theatre for 4 weeks only. But with so much choice for ABBA content, will The Way Old Friends Do be the winner who takes it all?
First premiering at Birmingham Rep in February this year, this brand new play was seen in London the following month where I was blown away by it in my initial review. Combining three of my loves – theatre, ABBA and drag queens, how could I not? I was interested to see how it would translate on a bigger stage with a bit more glitz and glamour thrown in so jumped at the chance to catch it again. The Way Old Friends Do tells the story of Peter (Ian Hallard) and Edward (Anton Tweedale) – two school friends who reconnect due to a combination of circumstance, coincidence and horniness. Well, let’s just call it fate. As they rekindle their friendship and their love of ABBA, they see an opportunity to create a brand new tribute group to thank them for the music, but this time with a twist – the men will be Agnetha and Anni-Frid, bringing along two women to play Bjorn and Benny. As the group grow in confidence and play more shows together, outside forces threaten to change the dynamic as is so often the name of the game.
If that description sounds a bit sinister, it is a subplot that plays a very small part of the show in the grand scheme of things. At its heart, The Way Old Friends Do is a love letter to not just ABBA but being a fan of an artist or group in general. It is instantly relatable to anybody who has ever found themselves singing into a hairbrush, dressing up like their idols or annoying their friends by quoting random facts nobody ever needed to know or filling conversations with unnecessarily inserted song lyrics. (Can you tell I can relate?) The genius of the show is the way it hides little nuggets and Easter eggs for ABBA fans to smile at, but doesn’t make it inaccessible for anyone with a dislike to the group. (Do such people exist?)
Ian Hallard’s writing perfectly creates a world in which many can relate to with his own love for ABBA shining through the script in a play full of passion. As well as the theme of fandom, The Way Old Friends Do carries other topics through its two hours, with friendship, connection and even self-acceptance showing it has no shortage of depth and beauty. When it comes to the writing, you don’t have to wait too long for the next laugh to arrive. Hallard’s script is wickedly funny with well thought out characters, each with their own hilarious quirks, and some truly sensational one-liners. Easily quotable and brilliantly clever lines including what having a falafel for lunch means and one characters box-ticking were among the biggest laughs of the evening (To see what these are, you’ll have to see the show for yourself). As well as being one of the funniest shows the West End has seen in a good while, it is the multiple layers to the writing that really makes this such a special show. While moments can be heartfelt and certain elements of the story can be a bit hairy at times (and I don’t just mean Benny’s beard) this is the rarest of shows which puts a smile on your face from the opening moment and doesn’t give you any opportunity to lose it throughout the entire show.
Mark Gatiss takes a break from his recently rave-reviewed turn in The Motive and the Cue (soon to be seen in the West End) to direct this play. What is clear to see from the offset is he also has a deep understanding of the nuances of this story with a real knack for maximizing every aspect of the production. This authenticity and synergy makes more sense when you realise the director and the writer are married with their love extending to the stage to create the birth of something truly wonderous in an effortlessly exceptional way few shows are able to match.
Janet Bird’s set design based around a revolving stage resembling the ABBA logo (though with the B’s switched around) is an inspired touch and gives a playful touch to the story. Her costume design is equally impressive with classic ABBA looks getting the Drag treatment in fabulous fashion. Gorgeous lighting from Andrew Exeter and flawless sound design from Ben Harrison ensures the action always looks and sounds as stunning as this show deserves in a production that never puts a foot wrong.
As well as writing, Ian Hallard also stars in one of the lead roles as Peter. Having written the role for himself, it seems obvious to say he plays it like nobody else can with a genuine warmth towards his obsession with ABBA. Ian shows real versatility with his acting choices, particularly through his conversations with his Nan (the voice of Miriam Margolyes). His demonstration of what it means to have such passion for am artist is played with such relatability in a truly star performance. Stepping in to the heels of Anna-Frid since the last time I saw the show is Anton Tweedale as Edward. Initially a difficult character with no shortage of walls, his true self comes out as the show progresses and he dons the red wig. Tweedale’s performance is a slow burn but one that proves deliciously satisfying in a performance that requires a surprising amount of emotion due to the nature of his journey.
Rose Shalloo gets some great comic moments as Jodie particularly her opening scene which introduces us to this crazy world while Andrew Horton throws a spanner in the works with a great turn as the questionable Christian. Donna Berlin is a revelation as Sally in a turn that sees her commanding the stage and getting some of the most cutting one-liners of the evening, performed exquisitely. Perhaps the most memorable character of the night goes to Mrs Campbell, played here by the amazing Sara Crowe. The dotty older lady might not know what’s going on and is just there for a bit of great fun but Sara channels this to create comedy gold. Her characterisation and delivery are second to nine and ensured whenever she made an appearance on stage, it really was bound to be great fun. The show also features a voiceover from the late Paul O’Grady who sadly passed away since the last time I saw this show, owing a sense of poignancy to the proceedings and further keeping this in the time capsule setting it portrays.
Few shows get it right as effortlessly as The Way Old Friends Do. It’s roaringly funny writing with a mix of heart alongside a truly sensational cast and expert direction makes this the perfect production. Uniquely positioning itself among other comedy shows (not to mention the other ABBA ones) there is plenty here for everyone to enjoy whether you can relate to a Drag ABBA tribute group or not. Hilarious and heartwarming in equal measure, Mrs Campbell said it best when she said it’s great fun – and it really is. Perhaps the most fun you will have in the theatre without bursting out into a chorus of ‘Dancing Queen’… although you can even do that at the finale here. It may only be in the West End for four weeks but I still have faith The Way Old Friends Do will be back making audiences go head over heels for it all over again. Whether you are an ABBA fan or not, take a chance on this wonderfully uplifting show and you’ll be sure to have the time of your life.
The Way Old Friends Do plays at the Criterion Theatre until 9th September, Tickets from https://www.criterion-theatre.co.uk
Photos by Geraint Lewis