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Live / stage review

"Both amusing and bitter-sweet": The Way Old Friends Do

Featuring queer friendships at its core, The Way Old Friends Do is centred around ABBA but is not a musical. What did reviewer Paul Szabo make of this Lyceum production? 

Four people from behind wearing 70s clothes on a stage

Ian Hallard as Peter, Rose Shalloo as Jodie, Sara Crowe as Mrs Campbell and James Bradshaw as Edward in The Way Old Friends Do - ABBA

Darren Bell

Following a rather disastrous date arranged through Grindr, a gay dating app, two middle-aged friends, Peter and Edward, rekindle their school-days friendship which was originally formed through their sexuality and a shared love of the music of ABBA.

Edward, an out, loud, openly gay man is married to an affluent older husband but yearns for something more. Peter is not out to his family and is content to settle for meaningless hook ups, the single life and his obsession with the Swedish supergroup.

Both, in their own ways, are facing a mid-life crisis, so when the chance comes for them to perform an ABBA drag show, they can’t resist. But the arrival of Christian, a young, handsome ABBA superfan, impacts on Peter and Edward’s friendship and brings some unexpected consequences and home truths.

Unlike the jukebox musical, Mamma Mia!, The Way Old Friends Do does away with the song and dance numbers, and whilst the music of ABBA is the MacGuffin of the story, the central theme here is the friendship between two middle-aged gay men.

Ian Hallard’s play is both amusing and bitter-sweet and is written with a hint of autobiography and a clear adoration of the band and their music.

There are some beautiful touches throughout the story, in particular the mirroring of the emotions and reassurances offered when Eddie is trying to convince Peter to come out to his grandmother, and the reassurances Eddie receives about possibly leaving his husband. So it is a shame that the script falters in some places as a result of a handful of unnecessarily overly crude jokes and innuendos. These sit uncomfortably and juxtapose far too sharply with the otherwise rather gentle and warm writing.

There are many things to enjoy in this production. There is an abundance of queer central characters and the fact that there is never any suggestion of Peter and Edward being anything more than friends. This takes away the distraction of the usual “will they / won’t they” love story and allows the focus to be on their friendship and the impact upon that as events unfold, rather than romance.

Two men wearing dressing gowns

James Bradshaw as Edward and Andrew Horton as Christian in The Way Old Friends Do

Darren Bell

Hallard has crafted some instantly likeable characters, whilst his husband Mark Gatiss (Sherlock, Dr Who, The League of Gentlemen) directs with an assured hand, drawing in the audience and holding them as he moves into the drama and pathos of the second act. Gatiss also elicits charming performances from the supporting cast, in particular the delightful, deadpan delivery of Tariyé Peterside as Mrs Campbell.

Janet Bird’s set design is beautifully simplistic and incredibly clever as it revolves to reveal the next location accompanied by a soundtrack of snippets of ABBA songs. There are some lovely voice over cameos from Miriam Margolyes and Paul O’Grady and there are more ABBA trivia facts scattered amongst the script than there are ABBA tribute bands.

The production is a play as opposed to a musical and those expecting the latter or seeking something akin to Mamma Mia! will not find what they are expecting.

But what there is on stage is some well-crafted storytelling and a show that is ultimately touching, moving and uplifting and leaves you warm and reflective inside as you leave the theatre.

Learn more

The Way Old Friends Do is at Sheffield Lyceum until Saturday 11 March 2023. Details of Sheffield Theatre’s accessibility policy can be found here.

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