When an ABBA covers band booking at his local arts venue falls through, Brummie superfan Peter sees an opportunity to fulfil a lifelong dream: to step in and form his own tribute group to the Swedish pop maestros, with a difference. How will audiences react to he and his friend Edward playing Agnetha and Anni-Frid? And will their recently renewed friendship survive the experience?
‘The Way Old Friends Do’ is a play by actor Ian Hallard, who’s also on stage as Peter, a warmly approachable but initially shy ABBA fan who shares everything with his beloved nan apart from his bisexuality. He and Edward – James Bradshaw, most recently seen on our screens as dry pathologist Dr Max DeBryn in ‘Inspector Morse’ prequel ‘Endeavour’ – inadvertently reconnect via hook-up app Grindr after decades of not seeing each other.
Hallard’s real-life love of ABBA shines through in his script, which packs in a Wikipedia-entry level of biographical nuggets about the group. The play’s exploration of the contours of a middle-aged friendship – not a romance – between two queer men is also a refreshing twist on its rom-com trappings. It’s similarly interesting to watch Edward, who hides his vulnerability inside an armour of posh bitchiness, tentatively navigate the idea of an open relationship after decades of monogamy with his soon-to-be husband.
There’s some strong support from Donna Berlin as Peter’s no-nonsense friend Sally, who has to contend with Edward’s excesses while undergoing IVF with her wife. Rose Shalloo brings a bubbly sincerity to the talkative Jodie, who joins the group with little knowledge of ABBA and ends up in drag as Björn opposite Sara Crowe’s absent-minded Mrs Campbell as the bearded Benny. Crowe is undoubtedly this show’s secret weapon, spinning comedy gold from the most throwaway lines.
The production itself – directed with a light touch by Hallard’s husband, Mark Gatiss, no less – coasts along on a wave of chirpy charm, even if we never really get to see the gender-swapped band perform. It’s just nice, sometimes, to watch a bunch of well-meaning characters trying their best, even if they mess up. However, the script has its threadbare patches. We get plenty of topical references to Trump, Brexit, the pandemic and the re-emergence of ABBA, but we never get the same sense of ‘place’ you find in films like ‘Brassed Off’, ‘The Full Monty’ or similar touchstones.
The play also has a tendency to tell rather than show, including the conclusion of an underfed subplot in which handsome – and scheming – ABBA fan Christian (Andrew Horton) creates a schism between Peter and Edward. We effectively get a recap. At the same time, strangely, in spite of the characters’ infectious enthusiasm for the group, we never get a clear explanation of why ABBA matters so much to Peter. It’s a notable absence in an often fun and endearing show.