The cast and creatives of The Way Old Friends Do should be thanked for all the joy they’re bringing. Ian Hallard’s debut stage play as a writer is an ABBA-themed comedy for which superlatives like ‘joyous’, ‘heartwarming’, and ‘riotously funny’ could have been invented.
Hallard also stars as Peter, a superfan of the Swedish foursome who gets roped into forming a tribute band with his old school pal Edward (James Bradshaw) – the twist being that they do it in drag.
They’re like chalk and cheese. They both came out at school. But Edward announced his gayness while Peter, unsure of his sexuality, declared his love for Björn, Benny, Agnetha, and Frida. In adulthood, Peter is a mostly happy homosexual and Edward is what men of his generation would call a screaming queen.
Or at least he starts that way. James Bradshaw is hilariously unapologetic in the role but he taps into the vulnerability behind the bravado. And Hallard is adorable as sweet-natured Peter, as cutely unsure of himself in a frock as Bradshaw is confident in the most unflattering of leotards.
In a story peppered with ABBA trivia (Hallard is clearly a fan himself), they pair up with two equally mismatched ladies. Ditzy showbiz wannabe Jodie (Rose Shalloo) signs on as Björn and rehearsal pianist Mrs. Campbell (Sara Crowe) is a reluctant Benny.
“This is a sweet story about attachments old and new”
The latter character is a modern-day Mrs. Overall with a keyboard instead of marigolds and a beard that won’t stay put. Crowe plays her brilliantly, viewing everything as “great fun” with an air of total bemusement.
Completing the cast are Donna Berlin as a lesbian of colour who Edward keeps rubbing up the wrong way and Andrew Horton as an Aussie hottie with dishonourable intentions.
Sadly we don’t get to see the auditions for this quirkiest of ABBA tribute acts. Nor do we get to see any full-blown performances and we only hear snippets of songs between scene changes. Maybe that’s a rights issue or maybe it’s an artistic choice.
“This is a high-energy ode to fandom and friendship”
Either way, it works well because this is a sweet story about attachments old and new and you can always go see Mamma Mia! if you want to watch theatre folk cavorting about to ABBA tunes.
Hallard’s script is full of zingers like “I had a falafel for lunch, doesn’t make me a vegetarian” and, in reference to Grindr, “It’s all fucking about with no actual fucking”. But the comedy always rings true for the fully fleshed-out characters he’s created.
Hot on the heels of The Unfriend, Mark Gatiss directs with genuine affection for Hallard’s creations and a lightness of touch that keeps things moving along very nicely. There’s a swerve into the sentimental in the second act but this is a high-energy ode to fandom and friendship that’ll leave you with a giddy grin.
The Way Old Friends Do is at the Park Theatre, London, until 15 April and tours the UK from 17 April. Get tickets here.