The premise of this new play by Ian Hallard is that in the 1980s two school friends tentatively came out to each other: one as gay, the other as a died-in-the-wool ABBA fanatic! Nearly thirty years later they meet up and decide to form an ABBA tribute band – in drag! The play, unfortunately lacking in ABBA songs, charts the progress of the group.
The show is greatly aided by Janet Bird’s revolving set which means that each scene flows smoothly into the next and by Mark Gatiss’ direction which emphasises the strengths of the writing.
The cast is led by Sara Crowe as Mrs Campbell, the keyboard player and ‘headbanger’, who lifts the play whenever she is onstage, which is not enough! At the beginning of Act Two, her portrayal of this middle-aged Scottish lady is a master class in how to extract a laugh not only from every line or word that she says, but also every action, without ever slowing the play down. She says nonchalantly of Michael Palin: “All that travelling – what is he running from?” It’s the WAY she throws the line away which is wonderfully funny, and almost stopped the performance I was at! The play is worth seeing for her portrayal alone. The playwright, Ian Hallard, has given her some great lines which she relishes and which lesser actors would make nothing of!
Rose Shalloo is Jodie, whom we first see in the moments before she auditions to be a member of the group. At first, I thought that her much larger-than-life performance was too unbelievable, but I quickly realised that I know someone exactly like this character ( a flugelhorn player!) and warmed to her portrayal at once. Shalloo gives the role great enthusiasm and energy in a jejune sort of way which balances beautifully with that of Crowe.
Donna Berlin is very successful in the role of Sally, the stage manager, being much more sensible and down to earth than either of the above, even if her part is rather two-dimensional.
The author himself, Ian Hallard, is the ABBA loving fanatic Peter, being very convincing, especially when he is unsure of the route he is being asked to take. Andrew Horton plays Christian, another younger ABBA fanatic, looking suitably gorgeous, whilst James Bradshaw is a very camp Edward, given some very strong, unnecessary, strong language at the beginning of the play which jars with the lightness of touch and humour of the rest of the cast.
Effective and imaginative lighting is by Andrew Dexter with sound design – too few ABBA tracks presumably because of copyright – by Ben Harrison.
The denouement of the play feels rather contrived, but, in spite of that, the audience at Park Theatre obviously enjoyed it very much – there was much-prolonged laughter and applause – and, as I have already said, it’s worth seeing just for Sara Crowe’s contribution to the fun!
If you are unable to see it in London, it is touring to ATG’s Theatre Royal Brighton in May.
Review by John Groves
In the late 1980s, two school friends from Birmingham tentatively come out to one another: one as gay, the other as an ABBA fan. Nearly thirty years later, a chance meeting sets them on an exciting new path, and they decide to form the world’s first ABBA tribute band – in drag. But can their friendship survive the tribulations of a life on the road; one full of platform boots, fake beards and a distractingly attractive stranger?
James Seabright in association with Jason Haigh-Ellery and Park Theatre presents the Birmingham Rep production of
DONNA BERLIN | SALLY
JAMES BRADSHAW | EDWARD
SARA CROWE | MRS CAMPBELL
IAN HALLARD | PETER
ANDREW HORTON | CHRISTIAN / WAITER
ROSE SHALLOO | JODIE
MIRIAM MARGOLYES | VOICE OF ‘NAN’
PAUL O’GRADY | VOICE OF THE ‘RADIO DJ’
ANTON TWEEDALE | UNDERSTUDY PETER / EDWARD
TOBY HOLLOWAY | UNDERSTUDY CHRISTIAN / ASM
TARIYE PETERSIDE | UNDERSTUDY SALLY / MRS CAMPBELL / JODIE
WRITER | IAN HALLARD
DIRECTOR | MARK GATISS
SET & COSTUME DESIGNER | JANET BIRD
LIGHTING DESIGNER | ANDREW EXETER
SOUND DESIGNER | BEN HARRISON
CASTING DIRECTOR | MARC FRANKUM
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR | GAVIN JOSEPH
The Way Old Friends Do
By Ian Hallard
Directed by Mark Gatiss