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The Way Old Friends Do at the Criterion Theatre

When you leave the Criterion Theatre and go down the nearest tube entrance, as you descend the escalator to the Bakerloo Line, there’s an enormous billboard advertising ABBA Voyage, the show where the band appear as avatars and you realise how London is enthralled by the Swedish foursome who disbanded over forty years ago. As well as Voyage, there’s Mamma Mia!” which has been playing in the West End for twenty-four years and is currently at the Novello and there’s also Mamma Mia! The Party an interactive experience at the O2. And now for a few weeks, ABBA lovers can get another fix at the Criterion Theatre in Ian Hallard’s The Way Old Friends Do which tells the story of the friendship between two middle-aged gay men, who decide to put together an ABBA tribute band with a twist – they will perform as Agnetha and Frida and two women will play Benny and Björn!

Ian Hallard (Peter) + Donna Berlin (Sally) - The Way Old Friends Do - credit Darren Bell.
Ian Hallard (Peter) + Donna Berlin (Sally) – The Way Old Friends Do – credit Darren Bell.

The Way Old Friends Do gets off to an eerie start when the “turn off your mobiles” announcement is made by the late Paul O’Grady who later is heard again as a radio DJ. The other actor who appears as a voice only (who we hear down a phone), is Peter’s Nan, played by Miriam Margolyes. Peter is played by Hallard and the play is directed by Hallard’s husband, the ubiquitous Mark Gatiss.

Peter and Edward (Anton Tweedale), are two old schoolfriends who have lost touch but have made contact accidentally through Grindr. After catching up with what’s going on in their lives, to help a friend out of a hole, they decide to put together the ABBA tribute band with that twist and a one-off performance turns into a long-term commitment.

The Way Old Friends Do is all about friendship framed by Pete’s love and encyclopaedic knowledge of ABBA using the forming of the tribute band and its adventures, to show how true friendship endures whatever’s thrown at it.

The problem with The Way Old Friends Do is that the comedy often isn’t very funny. There are one or two lines that hit home such as when Peter tells Edward that he’s had a heterosexual relationship and considers himself bi-sexual, Edward says “I had a falafel wrap once – that doesn’t make me a vegetarian!” but most of the jokes fall a bit flat although on press night when family and friends were in, the audience would probably have laughed if one of the characters had read out the shipping forecast. Also, the play could have done with some tension to balance out the comedy and whilst a character is introduced who becomes the grit in the oyster and tries to come between Peter and Edward, it feels a little tacked on.

The other characters are Peter’s friend Sally (played by Donna Berlin), Jodie (Rose Shalloo) an aspiring actress who ends up somewhat reluctantly ends up as Björn, Mrs Campbell (Sara Crowe) the elderly rehearsal pianist who has a lot of fun as Benny and Christian (Andrew Horton) who seduces both Peter and Edward. One or two of the performances need reigning back a little as they contrast with Hallard’s natural approach and seem to just be playing it for laughs without fleshing out the characters to avoid them becoming caricatures.

The set design is excellent with a revolve that enables the scene to change quickly and seamlessly from Peter’s flat to a restaurant to backstage at the venue the band is playing amongst other locations and this is aided and abetted by Andrew Exeter’s superb lighting design.

The problem with The Way Old Friends Do is that it doesn’t seem to have decided whether it wants to be a broad comedy or make a point about a friendship between two middle-aged gay men and falls between the two stools, feeling old fashioned and a little dated. The ending which has the two men united after not seeing each other for a while is very poignant and moving but the mood is soon shattered as the cast appear in full ABBA regalia for a sing-along, clap-a-long rendition of “Dancing Queen” as they take their curtain calls which I’m sure is fine if you love ABBA but it made for an unsatisfactory ending.

3 Star Review

Review by Alan Fitter

In 1988, two Birmingham school friends tentatively came out: one as gay, the other – more shockingly – as an ABBA fan. Thirty years later, they reunite to form the world’s first ABBA tribute band – in drag. Can their friendship survive the tribulations of a life on the road; one full of platform boots, fake beards, and a distractingly attractive stranger?

Simultaneously tender and laugh-out-loud funny, this heartfelt story will appeal to anyone who understands how it feels to be a fan: of ABBA or of anyone.

Written by and starring Ian Hallard (The Boys In The Band), and directed by Mark Gatiss (The Unfriend, Sherlock, Dracula, Doctor Who, The League of Gentlemen). Cast includes Donna Berlin (Doctors), Sara Crowe (Olivier Award winner for Private Lives), Andrew Horton (Jupiter’s Legacy), Rose Shalloo (Malory Towers) and Anton Tweedale (The Mousetrap, West End). Featuring the voices of Miriam Margolyes and Paul O’Grady.

The Way Old Friends Do
Criterion Theatre, London
17 Aug 2023 – 9 Sep 2023
Running Time 2h 15m

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