Writer Ed King / production shots by Darren Bell
With a Swedish flag, gold platform boot, and a microphone on the front cover of the souvenir brochure, you’d be forgiven for thinking The Way Old Friends Do is about ABBA. And it is, kind of. But the multi-million pound pop phenomenon is only the backdrop.
Ian Hallard’s stage debut is a story about old friends; about looking back to look forward, looking forward to look inwards, and how a shared history of your formative years can lay stronger foundations than you’d think.
No matter how many jaw dropping 25 year olds, “with an ass you could bury yourself in for weeks”, turn up to steal the spotlight.
Directed by Hallard’s husband, Mark Gatiss, in a terrifying challenge to the adage of life imitating art, The Way Old Friends Do follows school pals Peter (Ian Hallard) and Edward (James Bradshaw) – after a chance meeting on Grinder rekindles their playground friendship, now they’re both middle aged and out. Albeit some more than others on both counts.
After a follow-up lunch date with Peter’s stage manager friend Sally (Donna Berlin), whose down to earth dyke persona clashes with Edward’s “posh twat in a cravat” character, the idea of an ABBA tribute band is born out of a hole in Sally’s diary that needs filling (pun intended).
Not Bjorn, mind, as the fledgling supergroup runs through the myriad of pre-existing monikers to claw back some originality. And yes, the script is stuffed with innuendo.
For a reason that felt under-explained in the narrative, they adopt the gender bending idea to perform ABBA in drag – giving their new tribute band on the tired circuit a fresh edge, and Peter the chance to have the bottom of a 22 year old Swedish woman.
A couple of glasses later and the tax dodging costumes are being sewn up, with hasty auditions bringing in the loquaciously nervous Jodie (Rose Shalloo) and pantomime pragmatic Mrs Campbell (Tariyé Peterside – understudy), taking on the respective roles of Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson.
Led by Peter, who is ABBA superfan No1, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the pop group’s past, present, and possible future (although even superfans can be wrong), their supposed one hit wonder goes much better than expected. And by the end of act one, buoyed by audience applause and the backstage adulation of ABBA superfan No2 – the talented Mr Christian (Andrew Horton) – the now called Head Over Heels embark on a whirlwind tour of the Midlands and beyond, playing such revered venues as a pub in Acocks Green, “…it’s a real place”, and a golf club in Shirley.
But as the money, money, money rolls in, and Christian’s devilish youth drives a wedge between the old friends, the cracks start to show – turning the glory days of act one into the melodrama of act two.
The Way Old Friends Do is a wonderful ride into the minds and machinations of two middle-aged gay men (or bi… never quite landed on that) who relive the horrors of adolescence to find a place in each other’s more mature hearts. With a magnificent supporting cast and the occasional blonde wig.
Themes of obsession, distraction, lust, and trust are fleshed out in the revolving door relationships between Peter, Edward, and Christian, with superb comic relief from Jodie and Mrs C. The former’s one line retort as to why she’s mistaken for gay is worth the price tag alone, as is the latter’s rampant and joyfully dry wit.
Janet Bird’s versatile stage, it literally turns from living room to dressing room, is simple yet effective, and carries us confidently from location to location – with some super trooper lighting changes from Andew Exeter to keep things both firmly ABBA and in place.
Yet whilst the play is both genuine and funny, the writing sometimes sidesteps the darker corners of character development – touching on the raw nerves, but slapping on a one line plaster and moving briskly past the pain. Plus, the decisive point remains a little unclear.
But superbly acted, laugh out loud funny in many moments, and as far from patronising about each subject covered as you could ask it to be, The Way Old Friends Do is a wonderful toe dip into the world of what really matters: friendship, honesty, and the occasional giggle over a glass of Rioja. ABBA fan or not.
And framing the director’s note inside the souvenir brochure is the sentiment that best sums it up: good things last.
The Way Old Friends Do runs in The Studio theatre at Birmingham Rep until Saturday 4 March, before touring across the UK until 10 June. for more information visit: www.thewayoldfriendsdo.com
For more information on The Way Old Friends Do at Birmingham Rep, including full performance details and links to online tickets sales, visit: www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/whats-on/the-way-old-friends-do-2