It’s been nearly 50 years since ABBA’s historic win at the Eurovision song contest and their music remains as fiercely popular as ever. From the colossal success of the jukebox musical Mamma Mia! to the vivid virtual concert experience of ABBA Voyage, the band is a staple in practically all of our playlists. Whether it’s to celebrate a hen party, a birthday or getting through a tough break-up – ABBA are a source of comfort for people of all generations. This is a sentiment shared by Peter, the central character of Ian Hallard’s new comedy-drama The Way Old Friends Do, performing at the Lowry as part of a nationwide tour.
“ABBA have got me through so much. I listen to them when I’m on top of the world; I listen to them when I’m at my lowest ebb.”
It’s no surprise that the show’s creator, who also plays Peter, is just as avid a fan of the Swedish super-group. His immense passion lay the groundwork for the show, which follows the story of two old friends who decide to form a new tribute band.
After an awkward dating app mishap, Peter reunites with his old school friend Edward (James Bradshaw) and it isn’t long before the pair start to reminisce about their shared love of ABBA. They soon resume their friendship and, with the help of Peter’s best friend Sally (Donna Berlin), embark on a new creative venture – to form the world’s first drag ABBA tribute band.
Not discouraged by their disastrous experience singing ABBA together in an old school concert, the pair are swept up in joy and nostalgia of the project, adorably bonding (and at times cringing) over the most obscure trivia. While Peter and Edward, take up the roles of Agnetha and Frida respectively, ditzy young actress Jodie (Rose Shalloo) and local pianist Mrs. Hermione Campbell (Sara Crowe) make up the quartet as Benny and Bjorn.
Donned in platform heels, synthetic wigs, and fake beards, this quirky group becomes an unexpected success. However, Peter and Edward’s friendship is suddenly threatened by a distractingly attractive stranger (Andrew Horton) who seems prepared to do anything to get into the band. Can the pair’s friendship survive the trials and tribulations on tour?
With a combination of masterful direction by Mark Gatiss, stellar acting, and an impactful script that’s both moving and hilarious, this production’s charms are endless. The dialogue is laced with coarse humour, cheeky sexual innuendos, and some unsettling dark jokes leaving audiences rolling in their seats with laughter. As well as its top-notch comedy, the play offers an authentic exploration of enduring friendship, coming out, generational homophobia, betrayal, and devotion. Hallard gives us a warm and earnest performance as the closeted bisexual Peter, and it is touching to see the character’s self-confidence flourish with a particularly heart-warming coming-out scene. Bradshaw is also a joy to watch as the overtly posh and camp Edward, balancing his exuberant performance with moments of compelling vulnerability.
This night saw Tariyé Peterside stand in for Crowe as Mrs. Hermione Campbell and she gave a hilarious performance. She shows a great knack for physical comedy with her lines always prompting a riotous response from the audience.
If one thing detracts from the play, it is the abrupt shift in tone between Act 1 and 2. While Act 1 is more fun and comedy-focused, Act 2 has a lot more tension with some quite upsetting moments. They feel so tonally distinct that you’re initially quite taken aback when these serious emotional moments suddenly start unfolding on stage. The play could benefit if both acts were more evenly split in terms of drama and comedy so that audiences aren’t as jolted in the latter half.
Yet this is a minor quibble. Overall, The Way Old Friends Do is a charming feel-good play that celebrates queerness in a touching and joyous fashion. Whether you’re an ABBA fan or not, everyone can find comfort in a show which captures the intimate and quirky nature of friendships.
Words by Katie Heyes
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