The Way Old Friends Do – the play about ABBA’s first drag tribute with emotional Paul O’Grady appearance

I didn’t realise I was such a huge ABBA fan until my early 20s, until I was jumping at every opportunity to do something ABBA related. Thrift ABBA records at the car boot? Open air cinema to see Mamma Mia? ABBA tribute act or Mamma Mia the musical? I’m there. My fiance even proposed the same day we were going to see ABBA Voyage – I’ve converted him into a megafan, too.

So when I read the blurb of The Way Old Friends Do, I did what any ABBA fan would do and booked the day off work to head to The Lowry and catch the matinee. Beyond the description of the play, I knew nothing more – I enjoy seeing productions where I don’t already know the ending – and boy was it full of surprises.

The Way Old Friends Do, written by Ian Hallard, is a new comedy published in February 2023. It follows Edward and Peter, two Birmingham school friends who, in 1988, tentatively come out to one another: one as gay, the other – more shockingly – as an ABBA fan.

Nearly thirty years later, a chance meeting via the gay dating app Grindr sets them on a brand-new path and they decide to form the world’s first ABBA tribute band – in drag. However, the distractingly attractive press photographer Christopher causes a rift amid the platform boots and fake heels – so will their friendship survive such tribulations?

Darren Bell

The show opens poignantly with the voice of the late, great Paul O’Grady, who is of course known for his drag act Lily Savage. Despite telling director Mark Gatiss – one quarter of comedy troupe The League of Gentlemen – ‘I can’t stand ABBA’, the presenter kindly lent his unique tones to the voice over for the show back in November.

His opening speech took us back eight years, to 2015, when the show was set, reminiscing of the simpler times with absolutely no idea that by the time people heard it, he would no longer be with us. It’s safe to say that it left me a little emotional from the off, but Miriam Margolyes voice as Peter’s nan will soon have you chuckling.

Edward is brilliantly portrayed by James Bradshaw, performs alongside director Matt’s husband, Ian Hallard, as Peter, with a script that strikes a delicate balance between humour and tension between acts one and two. 

The couple comically reunite after thirty years in the first act, and after going for a drink with Peter’s friend Sally (Donna Berlin), who happens to be a lesbian, they go on to form the world’s first ABBA tribute in drag – Head Over Heels.

The strength of this production lies in the brilliant performances by the cast, who breathe life into their characters with a remarkable level of commitment and chemistry, with standout performances from Andrew Horton as the charming yet conniving Christian, and the compassionate and jittery Jodie, performed by Rose Shalloo. Meanwhile, Olivier Award winning Sara Crowe (Midsomer Murders/Four Weddings and a Funeral), gives a fantastically funny delivery of Hermione Campbell, who oft struggles with her beard as a gender-bended Benny.

As a whole team, their chemistry on stage is palpable, creating authentic moments of joy, tension, and heartfelt emotion.

The production is skillfully directed, with Gatiss expertly utilising the stage to create intimate moments. The rotating set is made of the word ABBA, with half the set displayed at a time, allowing for the second to be built out of sight. The lighting design artfully highlights the shifting moods and the passage of time, while the well-curated soundtrack of relevant ABBA hits is uplifting, nostalgic and worth the ticket fee alone, probably.

Much like work I’ve seen by John Godber, this play is sure to be divisive depending on the audience’s personal values. Different generations react quite differently to some of the coarse humour and dark jokes, which says more about them than it does Gatiss’ witty writing.

The final curtain call doesn’t disappoint, gracing us with the full ABBA-in-drag performance from Head Over Heels, with all the bells, whistles, beards and boots, leaving us all leaving the theatre humming along to the tune of Dancing Queen.

The Way Old Friends Do captures the essence of life’s ups and downs with remarkable poignancy, capturing the nuances of human connection and the way relationships evolve over time. It explores the intricacies of friendship, the power of forgiveness, and the beauty of reconnecting with our past.

Packed with devotion, desire and dancing queens, it’s a joyous show – ABBA fan or not – that  celebrates the enduring power of friendship, leaving audiences with a renewed appreciation for the connections that shape our lives.

The Way Old Friends Do is currently concluding its tour in York. You can find out more about the play here.

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