The Way Old Friends Do is writer Ian Hallard’s love letter to Abba, but don’t expect a musical re-tread of Mamma Mia; this is fundamentally the story of a schoolboy friendship re-kindled after thirty years, and the choices needing to be made (or avoided) in middle age.
Hallard himself plays Peter, an Abba obsessive and closeted bisexual man, whose chance meeting in 2015 with flamboyant gay schoolmate Edward through a Grindr date leads to the idea of them forming the UK’s first Abba tribute group where the girls are played by boys. Now to find two girls to play the boys…
The result is a sweet-natured comedy which raises some laughs even when the story turns a shade darker in Act Two; there are some good gags about Michael Palin, Theresa May and other contemporaries.
However the dialogue often feels sitcom-lite and, in the style of that format, characters aren’t fully developed; neither is there anything at stake to challenge most of them.
Mark Gatiss’ direction keeps the pace up and the mood light, and Janet Bird’s versatile set (a revolve featuring walls composed of the iconic Abba logo) allows for seamless scene changes, while her costumes raise some crowd-pleasing laughs.
Hallard’s Peter is the “straight” man of the piece and is empathetic and believable, and makes a surprisingly convincing Agnetha. Much of this play depends on his chemistry with Edward though, and James Bradshaw plays him so mannered and in the style of a 70s sitcom that the credibility of them ever being friends (or even in the same play) is stretched.
Likewise, Rose Shalloo as actress Jodie / Abba’s Bjorn uses an inexplicably helium-pitched voice which is presumably intended as funny but simply grates, though she softens later.
Donna Berlin is wry and compelling as lesbian stage manager Sally, and Andrew Horton brings an initial puppyish innocence to buff groupie Christian.
However it’s Sara Crowe as rehearsal pianist Mrs Campbell who quietly steals the show with excellent comic timing and underplaying, and her transformation into Benny makes her look like a head-banging Ewok.
This is an undemanding, good-natured night out with an uplifting ending. And the fact that it opens very poignantly with a voice-over by Paul O’Grady reminds us of the importance of staying close to our friends in the time we have.
The Way Old Friends Do is showing at Bath Theatre Royal until 3rd June. Box office: 01225 448844.
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Reviewer: Steve Huggins