Thursday 30 March 2023

Theatre review: The Way Old Friends Do

In programming that seems targeted at the gaiety but seems to have mainly attracted parties of women whose body composition is 60% Prosecco, the Park's main stage hosts Ian Hallard's latest, less kinky look at gay midlife crises. In The Way Old Friends Do, set between 2015 and 2020 with the occasional throwaway reference to topical events from those years, Peter (Hallard) has a surprise blast from the past when his Grindr date turns out to be Edward (James Bradshaw,) the best friend from school he hasn't spoken to in decades. A hookup's not on the cards but they do reconnect, and when Peter's friend Sally (Donna Berlin) mentions an ABBA tribute act has dropped out of an upcoming performance at the theatre where she works, Edward suggests they take over. Peter is a lifelong ABBA fan who can step into Agnetha's platform shoes, while Edward has always wanted to be Frida.

Leaning into the drag gimmick, they audition for women to play their husbands, and find chatty drama graduate Jodie (Rose Shalloo) to play Bjorn, while mousy pianist Hermione (Sara Crowe) dons Benny's beard.

The show's repeated insistence that nobody's done a drag ABBA tribute before feels like the very definition of [citation needed] to me, but their performance is enough of a hit for them to tour the show. But like the real band before them what starts as fun turns sour when their personal relationships do. Meanwhile superfan Christian (Andrew Horton) starts to ingratiate his way into the group, pushing the members even further apart.

The Way Old Friends Do is a very uneven play that works best as a gentle comedy but falters when it tries to deal with something a bit more emotional. Edward is the archetypal bitchy queen and I found the way he's written initially very irritating - he responds to the most generic chat with "you ask a lot of questions" as if he's never had a conversation before, and how he reacts when meeting Sally, a black lesbian, is less "ooh, what is he like?" and more "I'm so sorry, nana gets racist when she forgets to take her medication." Fortunately he settles into something a bit more like a real character as the play goes on, and for the most part the first act's comic setups and one-liners work.

The play is a bit less concerned with fleshing out the female characters, which still doesn't stop Crowe's amiable Hermione from stealing every scene she's in with her hilariously understated compliance with whatever weird request comes her way. There's also a sadder underscore to the central characters: Peter and Edward bonded at school over the homophobia they both experienced, and which has scarred them to this day - Peter still needs to come out as bisexual to his beloved grandmother, voiced by a pre-recorded Miriam Margolyes. His ABBA obsession is also revealed to be his way of feeling connected to his mother, who died when he was a child.

It's when these sadder themes come to the fore in the second act that Mark Gatiss' production loses steam. With the comic relief largely confined to the cast turning up in Janet Bird's great recreations of classic ABBA outfits, we're left with the rather contrived plotline of Christian providing the Yoko Factor, exposing the rifts already within the group. Bird's revolve, an asset in the first act as it facilitates scene changes and gets more ABBA tracks into the soundtrack, becomes more of a liability in the second: The scenes here are much shorter, so I started to feel like I was spending half the evening watching the stage slowly rotate under flashing disco lights.

I was clearly in a minority at The Way Old Friends Do and not just because I was sober, the show seemed to go down very well with most of the audience but I never felt emotionally engaged by the characters and thought the energy flagged in the more serious scenes. In fact the biggest emotional response of the evening was when the audience realised that the late Paul O'Grady had provided another of the show's pre-recorded voice cameos.

The Way Old Friends Do by Ian Hallard is booking until the 15th of April at Park Theatre 200; then continuing on tour to Guildford, Exeter, Brighton, Cheltenham, Oxford, Salford, Bath and York.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Darren Bell.

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