THE WAY OLD FRIENDS DO
The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 23rd February 2023
It’s 2015. When a Grindr hook-up between two middle-aged men turns out to be a surprise reunion between former schoolfriends, a chain of events is triggered that leads to the formation of a gender-swapped ABBA tribute act. Like it does. Ian Hallard’s wonderful script, full of barbed wit and brittle emotions beneath the surface, is an absolute belter.
Hallard appears as Peter, greying and good-natured, and an abbasolute ABBA afficionado. When the time comes, he makes an alluringly winsome Agnetha. James Bradshaw’s Edward is a neat contrast, waspish and snarky, and unhappy with his long-term partner. He is an excellent fit for Frida, the flame-haired siren of the Swedish supergroup. They audition for female artistes to portray the male members of the group. Nervous Josie (Rose Shalloo) gains confidence before our very eyes as Bjorn Ulvaeus, but the biggest surprise comes from the casting of Mrs Campbell, a woman in her sixties, as Benny Andersson. The part is written as a Scot but in this matinee performance, the role is taken by Tariye Peterside, who gives the character a hilarious Caribbean lilt, rather than the intended Caledonian. Peterside underplays her funniest lines to killer effect; you can’t help but love her. In fact, we root for the quartet from the get-go as they prepare for the first and only gig.
Enter the gorgeous Christian (played by the gorgeous Andrew Horton) a young Aussie who wants the group to perform at his 25th birthday do. He also offers to take publicity shots. Edward finds him irresistible (and who can blame him?) but does Christian’s professed penchant for older men mask an ulterior motive? The action is kept strictly backstage and there is a whiff of All About Eve to what transpires before the end. Completing this superb ensemble is the marvellous Donna Berlin as Sally, stage manager and best mate to Peter. Berlin imbues her role with heart and an arsenal of facial expressions that add to the comedy and reveal her genuine concerns for her friend. In addition to the onstage performers we get a pre-recorded Paul O’Grady as a radio host and, more wonderfully, a Brummie Miriam Margolyes as Peter’s unseen gran.
Janet Bird’s set makes use of the most famous palindrome in popular music with entrances in the As and scenic features in the doubled-back Bs. A revolve enables the action to move from place to place, and Bird’s costume designs trigger nostalgia for those 70s outfits. Mark Gatiss’s direction keeps things flowing, timing the punchlines to perfection and giving the characters room to breathe.
ABBA songs punctuate the scene transitions and lyrics pepper the dialogue, some of which will only be spotted by the die-hard fanatics. It culminates in a massively touching moment when, years later, the tribute act reunite for the first radio broadcast of ABBA’s first new song in decades.
It’s a play about friendships, the experience of older gay men, and being a fan. I’m not saying that ‘rainbow spectrum’ people have a monopoly on fandom, but we are rather good at it. Perhaps we’re filling a gap in our lives that no amount of dredging through Grindr can fulfil.
A hilarious, heart-warmer of a show with some saucy rejoinders and a whole lot of humanity. Just as society has learned that there is no shame in being gay, there is also no shame in being a fan.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Ian Hallard (Peter) and James Bradshaw (Edward) Photo: Darren Bell
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