The Way Old Friends Do review – super troupers shine in a fun, frothy comedy
Abba superfans might recognise this drama’s titular nod to one of the band’s lesser-known songs, but Ian Hallard’s fun, frothy comedy is as much about complicated friendship between gay men of a certain age as it is an ode to the pop group.
And what bigger superfan than Peter (also played by Hallard), a middle-aged former librarian who has worshipped the Swedish band since boyhood? He gets sucked into amateur dramatics through a coincidental reunion with a former school friend, Edward (James Bradshaw).
Soon enough, they are one half of a gender-reversed Abba tribute show opposite the very proper Mrs Campbell (Sara Crowe) and nervous babbler Jodie (Rose Shalloo), while Sally (Donna Berlin) stage-manages their appearance on the am-dram circuit.
Exuberantly directed by Mark Gatiss, the production keeps the band’s singing off stage, but a groovily rotating set (designed by Janet Bird) reveals everything from dressing-room banter to the bonds and fractures that form between them.
The story turns on the men’s friendship, and Hallard, with his easy charisma, makes Peter entirely lovable. Bradshaw initially seems like a modern-day Larry Grayson but becomes more textured, less camp, as the story progresses. The women are slightly secondary but still adorable, especially Crowe’s seemingly buttoned-up Scotswoman. Andrew Horton plays Christian, a disruptive influence who resembles the young interloper in All About Eve. He is fun to watch but seems too blatantly a plot device.
The band, in full regalia, are a vision to behold (the costumes, also by Bird, are phenomenal) and the show has the buoyant watchability of a TV comedy. There are some good comic lines and the best of them sound like Oscar Wilde if he were put through a modern-day Grindr, of sorts – but among them are softer, more predictable jokes, albeit still sweetly silly.
The tone remains a little too light, perhaps, but keen scenes show the scars that the toxic legacy of generational homophobia has left on men like Edward and Peter, the latter of whom is still not entirely out. “Isn’t it funny how shame lingers,” he says, and it is a joke about Abba but there are serious resonances. A heart-stopping scene shows him coming out to his grandmother, in midlife, which is awkwardly comic and magnificently tender.
It is moments like these that touch the deeper undercurrents of the story, which skims too lightly on its plot-led, frothy surface for the main, and could charge the comedy with so much more.
But it is incorrigibly entertaining all the same. Seen within Hallard’s play-writing trajectory (his debut was Adventurous, a Zoom drama also starring Crowe), it shows every sign of a comic writer who brings big dollops of warmth to his work, and abounding joyfulness too. A must-see for Abba fans; fun and laughs for the rest of us.