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'The Way Old Friends Do' review – this new play is one for the ABBA enthusiasts

Read our review of Ian Hallard's new play The Way Old Friends Do, directed by Mark Gatiss, now in performances at the Criterion Theatre to 9 September.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

The ABBA industry has for some while had three London shows concurrently on the go: Mamma Mia!, Mamma Mia! The Party, and ABBA Voyage. And along comes a fourth added to the mix this month in the form of writer and leading man Ian Hallard’s debut play The Way Old Friends Do, directed by the actor-author’s husband, Mark Gatiss.

There’s the whiff of late-summer filler to this West End upgrade of a show first seen in the spring at the Park Theatre. The result may appeal to enthusiasts desperate for ABBA in whatever form, but the writing and production are thin, such that one’s initial good will evaporates fast. Better to seek out one of the competing entries instead or, in Gatiss’s case, await the West End transfer of The Motive and the Cue, in which, playing John Gielgud, the Sherlock star gives one of the performances of the year.

A play very much of two halves, The Way Old Friends Do strains plausibility from the start. We’re asked to believe two onetime besties, Peter (Hallard) and Eddie (Anton Tweedale), agree to form part of an ABBA tribute band requiring its participants to perform in drag. Huh?

Not that we ever actually see their act until a curtain call determined on cue to jolly the audience along. Like Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the pivotal transformation is kept offstage, pride of place given in this play after the interval to the shifting intrigue between the two mates and a good-looking if guileful Australian photographer called Christian (Andrew Horton), who leads the older men on a romantic goose chase.

Hallard and Gatiss in 2016 led a superb revival of the iconic gay American drama The Boys in the Band, and Hallard’s plotting here takes a leaf from the earlier play in its anatomy of male liaisons and the lacerations that can attend them.

But the narrative is so scattershot that the connective tissue often seems to be missing, replaced by ABBA trivia (Hallard would clearly ace the topic on Mastermind) and awkward jokes about Grindr and the sex appeal of Nick Clegg. Politics recur when least expected: there is talk of having a crush on COVID-era medical advisor Chris Whitty, whilst Christian reports a soft spot for Theresa May simply because she apparently likes ABBA. Huh again?

It’s not remotely credible that this assemblage would occupy the same room, much less stay any sort of course in musical homage, whether to ABBA or anyone else. Rose Shalloo gets things off to a grating start as a woebegone performer with an applied accent so thick you can’t always understand what she says, and it’s not until the wonderful Sara Crowe appears as a likeable, cold-ridden oddball with a fondness for glossaries – don’t ask – that a character arrives whom one can warm to.

Family is represented by a recorded Miriam Margolyes, as Peter’s enquiring nan, who calls to complain about bunions but also offers unanticipated emotional support. It would seem that Peter owes a fondness for ABBA to his late mum, and that Crowe’s Mrs Campbell is the senior female figure these people collectively need – as does the audience.

Janet Bird’s set neatly spells out the band’s name in architectural terms, and a Michael Palin joke from left field elicits genuine belly laughs. Elsewhere, the play merely coasts on the same affection for its topic that is displayed, and how, by Peter, as if merely invoking ABBA somehow pre-empted criticism.

Why bother refracting the ABBA experience through this storyline when so many other comparably themed shows are available to playgoers? The Way Old Friends Do trades on an audience’s natural kinship with its subject and then, much like Christian in the play, betrays that trust.

The Way Old Friends Do is at the Criterion Theatre through 9 September. Book The Way Old Friends Do tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: The Way Old Friends Do (Photo by Geraint Lewis)

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