Review by Daz Gale
You may think theatre is oversaturated with ABBA shows of late with ABBA Voyage, Mamma Mia and Mamma Mia The Party! all still going strong. Surely there is no room for another? Undeterred by this, The Way Old Friends Do has danced and jived into London as part of its UK tour. As a fan of ABBA, Drag and *whispers* theatre (I don’t like to go on about it though), there was no doubt I had to take a chance on this show. But would I fall head over heels for it or would it be more of an SOS?
The Way Old Friends Do, named after a (perhaps lesser known) ABBA song tells the story of two school friends reuniting by chance and deciding to become the world’s first ABBA tribute band… in Drag. What is meant to be a one-off show becomes much more than that but it is not without its problems – with inner demons and external forces meaning the future of the group and the friendships within it could be under attack.
Written by Ian Hallard, you might have guessed by now this isn’t technically an ABBA show. While there are plenty of references and jokes that will bring a smile to the face of any ABBA fan, this is a show about the fans and could work if it was written about any band (although maybe it wouldn’t be as funny without the fake beard). The quality of Ians writing is exceptional and fills what could have otherwise been a fairly one-dimensional and slapstick story with depth and a whole lot of heart. Themes of fandom in general and what loving a band can mean to you are mixed with personal relationships and the acceptance of your loved ones to allow you to live your truth.
The balance of light-hearted fun with deeper meanings elevates The Way Old Friends Do to something special. Even with these conflicted themes, the tone remains consistent, even when things get a little hairy in the second act. It is the way this story is played out with authenticity and relatability that allow it to pull at your heartstrings. The tender conversation Peter has with his nan felt honestly real and succeeded in bringing a tear to my eye for a very different reason, mere moments after tears from laughter had fallen.
Comedy in theatre is always a tough one, isn’t it? While some shows can succeed at bringing the house down with roars and laughter, there is nothing more awkward than a joke falling flat, resulting in a deathly silence. I’m pleased to say the hit rate of jokes in The Way Old Friends Do is pretty flawless. The naturalistic dialogue between the sparring friends results in some incredible one-liners (Get ready for what it means to have a falafel for lunch and a reaction to somebody with an unfortunate surname) while the character of Mrs Campbell has to be one of the greatest comic creations I have seen in a long time – give her her own spinoff please. The jokes start early in the play and keep on coming in glorious fashion in a true testament to Ians writing.
Ian Hallard also stars as Peter, the ABBA superfan who dons Agnetha’s blonde wig in the Drag show. Still facing demons about his own identity, Ian embodies the character with sensitivity and a real truthfulness that provides an instant connection with the audience. James Bradshaw is the complete opposite of Peter as the seemingly confident and cocksure Edward. Camp and cutting, he is a force to be reckoned with and James clearly has the time of his life playing this deceptively complicated role. As things unravel later on in the play when events occur, we see a different side to Edwards nature which gives James to show his versatility a an actor. The chemistry the pair have make scenes between them come alive and become the driving force around the other characters they interact with.
Donna Berlin is a slow burner in her role as Sally. Initially taking a back seat, her dominance in the story grows as things spiral. This is played to perfection by Donna who relishes some of the one-liners she gets to deliver. Rose Shalloo by all rights has less to do than the other characters, and Jodie feels slightly less fleshed out by comparison. Despite this, she gives a warm performance and at times is the voice of the portion of the audience who perhaps aren’t completely up to date on their niche ABBA references.
Andrew Horton is a late addition to the party as Christian, seducing his fellow cast members and bringing conflict to the story. While his story feels at odds with the main story of the old friends performing, Andrews performance brings the whole thing together seamlessly in a charming fashion with a hint of danger. Perhaps the standout among the cast goes to the unlikely role of Mrs Campbell played marvellously by Sara Crowe. Often in her own world and usually unaware of what is going on, apart from the fact it all sounds like fun, this hilariously comic character results in some of the biggest laughs of the show and is played to absolute perfection thanks to Sara Crowe’s masterclass performance.
Mark Gatiss lends his expert direction to the affair, bringing Ian Hallards story to life in sensational fashion and having fun with his staging choices which drive home the tone of the story. Janet Bird’s incredible set design takes ABBA’s iconic logo and puts it on a resolve, transforming the scenes regularly throughout the show in instant fashion. Her costume design is also fabulous, inspired by some of ABBA’s legendary looks. Andrew Exeter’s lighting and Ben Harrison’s sound allows this to be a show with consistently fantastic production value, all of which tie together seamlessly to create something magnificent.
The Way Old Friends Do is a delightful surprise of a show. The way it manages to tell a relatable story with sweetness but keeping in elements of grit creates something that really was a joy to behold. Its top-notch writing is among the funniest things I have seen in a theatre in the last couple of years. Its phenomenal cast amplify the genius of the writing while the superb direction raises the stakes to create one of the best plays I have seen in a long time. Whether you are an ABBA obsessive or wouldn’t even get up to dance to ‘Dancing Queen’ at a wedding, there is something for everyone in this beautifully uplifting show. Well worth spending your money money money on, take a chance on this show and I guarantee you will have the time of your life.
The Way Old Friends Do plays at Park Theatre until 15th April. It then continues its tour around the UK until 10th June. Dates and tickets at https://www.thewayoldfriendsdo.com/
Photos by Darren Bell