By Jay Darcy
There is perhaps no artist gayer than ABBA. The irony of course being the fact the band was made up of two heterosexual couples. Nobody thought ABBA could be any gayer until Mamma Mia! came about. But even then, the musical centres on a young woman in search of her father because her mother slept with three men around the same time – again, a straight story.
Now, at long last, the gays have got ahold of ABBA, in a play directed by Mark Gatiss and written by and starring his husband, WhatsOnStage Award nominee Ian Hallard.
The Way Old Friends Do follows the reunion of two friends after 25 years. Way back in high school, they came out to each other – Edward as gay and Peter as… an ABBA fan!
Peter and Edward reunite on gay dating app Grindr, with Edward professing that of course Peter is gay – nobody that obsessed with ABBA could possibly be straight. (Peter is actually bisexual).
Back in high school, the guys had performed an ABBA song in front of their classmates, only to be mocked. All these years later, after going for drinks with Peter’s lesbian friend, Sally (the brilliant Brummy Donna Berlin), they decide to form the world’s first drag ABBA tribute band (it just keeps getting gayer and gayer, doesn’t it?).
Rose Shalloo (Malory Towers) plays Jodie, an annoyingly adorable youngster who went to drama school but has found little success. The fabulous, drunken Mrs Campbell is usually played by Olivier winner (and Philadelphia cream cheese icon) Sara Crowe but Crowe was indisposed last night so understudy Tariye Peterside stepped in.
At first, I felt Peterside felt less confident in her role than her colleagues but she soon began chewing up the scenery. Her comedic delivery deserves great praise. Almost every line she said received laughs from the audience, though I did feel like a handful of audience members were irritatingly humoured by her accent (you know the kind – old White people who find foreign accents funny).
The play, though universally funny, is definitely aimed at an older crowd – people who grew up with ABBA. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. There’s no issue with shows being tailored to certain demographics. Crowe previously starred in Sheila’s Island, which my writers did not love because it was clearly for older folk – but they admitted that the oldies seemed to love it.
This play, however, will be appreciated by all, but it is interesting seeing how older folk react to things quite differently to my generation.
For instance, during Peter and Edward’s bittersweet reunion, Peter reveals that he is bisexual. Edward scoffs that he had falafel for lunch – that doesn’t make him a vegetarian!
This joke is not so much a dig at bisexuals as it is people’s misunderstanding of bisexuality – including a lot of ironically bigoted older gay men, who Edward embodies (he’s also racially insensitive) – but I found the audience reaction a little unsettling. I laughed out loud but some audience members clapped ferociously which had me wondering whether they were merely humoured by Peter’s flippant remark or, worryingly, in agreement with it.
See, a lot of older folk are relatively gay-friendly but don’t recognise bisexuality. I spoke to a bunch of OAPs for research for my queer documentary, and a lot admitted to not understanding bisexuality. So the reaction to the bisexual joke made me feel a little uneasy but maybe I’m just a snowflake…
Whilst the first act merely follows the lead-up to the group’s (Head Over Heels – named after an ABBA song) one-off performance at Sally’s community theatre, the second act picks up the action. It begins right after the performance (which we never got to see, for the first act ended just before it), with a handsome stranger, Christian (Andrew Horton of Jupiter’s Legacy fame), visiting the band backstage and wooing the old gays with his good lucks and incredible body.
Christian goes on to cause a series of problems for the band, especially Edward and Peter. The play’s problem (a love-triangle with a scheming diva) is pretty conventional and unexciting – except for the fact that this is a gay love triangle. Hallard has taken a relatively basic and overused plot decide and given it to the gays. It’s refreshing to see a gay story play out like a lot of straight stories. It’s refreshing to see gay characters portrayed as, well, no different to anyone else; as complex humans, capable of mistreatment and betrayal.
The play’s final scene offers a resolution. It immediately follows the play’s peak. We do not get to see the aftermath but rather are told what happens which feels like a bit of a cheat but it works because, at its heart, this is a play about friendship – about devotion, desire and Dancing Queens!
The curtain call finally offers us an ABBA performance which we had weirdly been denied the entire show. It is very brief – merely the final part of ‘Dancing Queen’ – but it’s a lot of fun.
The play’s set design deserves great praise. It’s a funky, retro set which resembles “ABBA”, though whilst ABBA’s logo has the two Bs facing away from each other, this one has them facing each other. I’m not sure of the intention – perhaps it’s to signify that this is ABBA backwards!
The “Bs”, which make up a wall, spin around to signify scene changes, with the back of the set now becoming the front, allowing the crew to remove and add props at the back whilst a scene is taking place around front. Each time the set turns, a relevant ABBA song is played, and the set is lit up in neon colours. It’s all very atmospheric. They’re some of the best scene changes I’ve seen onstage.
The Way Old Friends Do might not be the most radical or inventive play but that doesn’t matter. It’s a fun, fluffy celebration of friendship, queerness, and ABBA – and that’s refreshing.
(Before the play, my best friend, Carly, had asked me to be her “bridesman”, so a play about friendship – and gender-bending – was the perfect celebration!)
The Way Old Friends Do runs at The Lowry (Quays Theatre) until May 27 and tours the UK until June 10.
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