”The Way Old Friends Do” at Birmingham Rep review – ABBA goes drag in a witty world premiere

Ian Hallard, Rose Shalloo, Sara Crowe and James Bradshaw in The Way Old Friends Do
Ian Hallard, Rose Shalloo, Sara Crowe and James Bradshaw in The Way Old Friends Do
© Darren Bell
A whimsical tale of friendship, music, and especially ABBA music, it’s hard not to feel a certain warmth towards The Way Old Friends Do.

Penned by Birmingham actor and writer Ian Hallard and directed by Hallard’s husband Mark Gatiss, it has a gentle humour, a touch of nostalgia and a witty script.

Schoolfriends Peter (played by Hallard) and Eddie (played by James Bradshaw), first performed ABBA songs together as teenagers at a concert in which their fellow pupils derided their musical taste. Reunited 30 years later, the guys decide to try again – by forming the first-ever ABBA tribute band in drag.

While the men eagerly snap up the roles of Agnetha and Frida, they enlist two women, Jodie (Rose Shalloo) and Mrs Campbell (played in the performance being reviewed by understudy Tariyé Peterside) to take on the parts of Björn and Benny and off they go.

The show follows the ups and downs of the band and its impact on the friendship between Peter and Edward – can their bond survive the temptations and the rivalries of life on the road?

ABBA fans will be spotting the song lyrics dripped into the dialogue, lapping up the miscellany about the Swedish supergroup and enjoying the tracks used to move forward the scene changes. But in reality, if an audience member had never even heard of ABBA (is that possible?), it wouldn’t really matter as the story is less about the tribute band and more about the characters within that band.

James Bradshaw and Andrew Horton in The Way Old Friends Do
James Bradshaw and Andrew Horton in The Way Old Friends Do
© Darren Bell

Hallard gives us an ABBA-mad Peter whose childhood ambition has always been to don a wig and become Agnetha on stage. In his silver platform boots and blue eyeshadow, he is living the dream.

However, Bradshaw’s Edward is finding being apart from his long-term partner Melvin a struggle. When faced with temptation, his self-loathing finds an outlet in too much booze and consequently puts the show in jeopardy.

Shalloo’s Jodie is a nervous over-talker who puts her foot in it without even realising but her bright-eyed innocence means she gets away with it. Peterside’s Mrs Campbell is an understated performance packed with nonchalant humour as she agrees to be part of the tribute band without really knowing what she is getting herself into.

Completing the cast are Donna Berlin as Sally, Peter’s lesbian friend who becomes the tour manager and even doubles up as Benny. Her no-nonsense efficiency hides the heartache she experiences in her personal life as she and her partner attempt to become parents. And Andrew Horton takes the role of Christian, the ABBA fan who inveigles his way into the tribute band, causing problems all round.

The show also features the voices of Miriam Margolyes as Peter’s grandmother, who we only hear through telephone calls, and Paul O’Grady as both DJ and commentator.

Hallard’s script is keen-edged and perceptive, rapidly creating characters and imbuing them with life views that make the audience both laugh and feel a tinge of sadness.

Janet Bird’s set design places the tale before giant ABBA letters which rotate, taking us from one scene into another, and her costumes wonderfully recreate the outlandish outfits worn by the group in the seventies and eighties.

A super-trouper of a show, The Way Old Friends Do reminds us all of the part music can play in our lives and our friendships.

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The Way Old Friends Do

Closed: 15 April 2023