Jessica Harris thanks the Rep for the music.
The Rep’s production, The Way Old Friends Do, certainly had a warm response from its audience on press night. And it was great to see the Rep building on its relationships with LGBTQ+ communities, previously established through events such as Birmingham’s Fierce Festival.
The comeback of ABBA in 2021 has given a vehicle for Ian Hallard to try his hand at play-writing, inspired by his own fascination with the band. And it’s provided a means of highlighting the significance of ABBA to many in the LGBTQ+ community. The show captures the band’s appeal to people across the spectrum, with its exuberant energy, its brassy harmonies and its garish costumes. Through the character of Peter, Hallard creates his very own drag ABBA tribute band, one which celebrates people’s sexualities and gender identities in all their diversity.
Yet, billed as a show with a heartfelt story which will appeal to anyone who understands how it feels to be an ABBA fan, the production is a mixed bag. Using a naturalistic style to explore the nature of a long-standing friendship, and to challenge our assumptions about the identities and viewpoints of others, the emotional connection made with the audience is not entirely successful.
One of the play’s most crucial scenes shows the betrayal of Peter’s friend, Edward, by a younger man who had previously declared his love for Edward. As the younger man makes advances towards Peter, this scene should be full of poignancy but the dialogue is stilted, the scene misses the mark, and we don’t feel Edward’s pain as we should.
The naturalistic approach has a somewhat dated feel to it, despite an attempt to position the production in recent events. There are references to the pandemic (“Are we hugging?” the characters ask one another) and to the way in which Peter and Edward meet again through Grindr, following years of separation. But when Peter, close to his nan but not yet out to her as bisexual, decides he must tell her, the plot feels predictable. He phones and asks if she is sitting down since he has something to say. We know before she speaks what her reply will be: “Right. Anything else?” Times have changed – even for older folk!
For those big on ABBA, the show will have felt a bit skimpy. Yes, a snippet of song here, a rail of costumes there, and some great wigs and platform shoes along the way. But it’s not until the final scene that we get a full song and dance routine from the tribute band. And even then, it’s cut short – fans of Dancing Queen will have left the auditorium feeling a little disappointed.
The production is lifted by humour, much of it either well hammed up or appropriately earthy. References to Birmingham also go down well: many scenes are set in a library theatre not too far from here. But the best comedic lines, and the biggest laughs, come from Tariyé Peterside’s portrayal of Mrs. Campbell. In her use of throw-away lines, the script feels more at ease with itself: talking about Michael Palin, she says nonchalantly, “All that travelling. What is he running from?”
Peter is played by Ian Hallard and Edward by James Bradshaw. The production was directed by Mark Gatiss.
The Way Old Friends Do runs at the Birmingham Rep until 4th March. For further information visit birmingham-rep.co.uk.
Pics – Darren Bell.