Imagine a mixtape of friendship, glitter, and catchy tunes, all bundled up in a story that’s as heartwarming as it is entertaining (yet, not so perfectly happy-ended). I recently had the pleasure of experiencing “The Way Old Friends Do” at the Criterion Theatre, and let me tell you, it’s a rollercoaster of emotions with a disco beat. This show is a dancing journey through friendship, love, and anything ABBA.
🎶 A Not-So-Classic Love Story with an ABBA Twist 🎶
This delightful production, crafted by Ian Hallard, takes us back to 1988, where two childhood pals reveal their deepest secrets: one embraces his identity as gay, while the other proudly declares himself an unabashed ABBA fan. Fast forward nearly three decades and these friends are surprisingly rekindling their bond – by forming the world’s very first ABBA tribute band in drag! However, the journey down the sparkly road of platform boots, fake beards, and catchy ABBA hits is far from smooth.
🎤 ABBA-licious Details for the Fans 🎤
For those of you who’ve already taken the London tour of ABBA-related attractions (feat. “Mamma Mia! The Musical”, “ABBA: Voyage” and “Mamma Mia! The Party”), get ready for another dose of the cult band’s joy.
Sprinkled throughout the show are geeky ABBA facts that’ll have you guessing your knowledge, and occasional snippets of the band’s iconic tunes to keep your spirits high. And yes, those famous 1975 cat dresses – they’re here too, stealing the spotlight with their retro charm.
💃 Switching Gears: From Glam Band to Gritty Drama 💃
The show starts on a jolly note as we witness the formation of the drag tribute band, but don’t be fooled by the glitzy exterior. As the plot deepens, so does the drama, as the story delves into themes of queer relationships, infidelity, and unexpected twists. It’s a courageous switch from the initial band formation tale, and while it adds depth, it might catch you off guard if you’re expecting a continuous disco party.
🎵 ABBA Hits on a Rotating Stage 🎵
Now, let’s talk about the staging – a rotating masterpiece that morphs scenes seamlessly. As the stage transforms from a bedroom to a rehearsal room or even a restaurant, some of ABBA’s biggest hits play in the background. However, there’s a caveat – the rotation can feel a tad slow, stretching those 20-30 seconds of transition. You’ll enjoy the tunes, but brace yourself for the tease of full versions.
💃 Dancing Queen’s Underwhelming Swan Song 💃
While the show boasts dazzling outfits, those famous golden capes, and spot-on ABBA personas, the closing number (“Dancing Queen”) left me wanting more.
The energy and choreography, synonymous with ABBA’s legendary performances, felt a bit lacking.
However, the show’s final moments, wrapped up with a nod to the title song “I Still Have Faith in You,” managed to tug at the heartstrings in a genuinely touching way.
👠 Wigs, Winks, and Show Stealers 👠
Let’s talk fashion – the outfits are fabulously crafted, but it’s the wigs that truly shine, perfectly embodying the essence of ABBA (all done by the talented Janet Bird). Astonishingly, even without the aid of makeup, these wigs effortlessly channel the distinctive personas of the band members. A special mention must go to Benny’s fake beard – an unexpectedly standout prop that left an indelible impression. For those with a taste for a dash of playful humor, the second act holds a treat in the form of some cheeky “men in tights” moments – an amusing addition that’s sure to tickle your fancy if you’re inclined that way.
🌟 Characters that Groove Their Way Into Your Heart 🌟
Ian Hallard’s portrayal of Peter, the ultimate ABBA fan, is a highlight. His infectious enthusiasm for all things ABBA, combined with his well-rounded character, makes him a true standout. I could imagine Peter, waking up in the middle of the night, could still win a random ABBA trivia. The moment when the idea of the creation of the tribute band popped up, I could see the instant switch of energy in Peter’s eyes – such a well-conveyed scene! His character was written most completely, as we got to know not just him but also his fantastic Nan (voiced by the fabulous Miriam Margolyes).
And then there’s Edward (Anton Tweedale), Peter’s former school friend, and his accidental Grinder date. whose transformation takes the plot to unexpected places. I only wish we could’ve delved deeper into his story and motivations. Rose Shalloo as Jodie, the anxious chatterbox, brought an energetic flair with her high-pitched voice and exuberant mannerisms, though some moments felt a touch over-the-top. However, as the show progressed, Shalloo’s portrayal found its groove, ultimately contributing to the band’s dynamic with a well-rounded performance.
Sara Crowe’s portrayal of Mrs Campbell, the charming and slightly awkward auntie, stole the spotlight effortlessly. Her presence radiated on stage, leaving the audience eagerly anticipating her every reappearance. A true scene-stealer, Crowe’s comedic timing shone particularly bright during her hilarious attempts at mastering the “Benny headbang” by the keyboard. It was her magnetic performance that added an extra layer of sparkle to this ABBA-filled journey.
🎭 An ABBA Superfan with a Murky Motive 🎭
The first half of the show painted a picture of a light and breezy jukebox journey – the kind where a group of friends kick off a band and chase their musical dreams. Yet, as the plot shifted gears in the second half, introducing the enigmatic Aussie ABBA superfan Christian, played by the charismatic Andrew Horton, I found myself grappling with a storytelling dilemma. While I might be alone in this sentiment, I tend to lean towards a well-fleshed-out villain with comprehensible motivations and a compelling backstory.
Unfortunately, in this case, Christian’s actions remained shrouded in mystery, making it difficult to empathise with his character’s decisions – ones that ultimately led to the band’s disintegration. Horton’s undeniable charm lent authenticity to his portrayal of a charming playboy, but I couldn’t help but wish for a peek into his past and a glimpse of the grander scheme driving his actions.
In the end, “The Way Old Friends Do” is a whirlwind of friendship, love, and ABBA that’s sure to hit all the right notes for fans of the iconic band. So, whether you’re an ABBA aficionado or simply someone looking for an enjoyable night out, this show has something to offer. Just be prepared for a story that takes unexpected turns, a rotating stage that sets the rhythm, and wigs that steal the show. And remember, as the show teaches us, sometimes coming out means embracing your passions publicly, no matter how “out there” they might be.
So gather your disco-loving crew and head to the Criterion Theatre for a night of laughter, sparkle, and yes, a bit of drama – all set to the timeless beats of ABBA. “The Way Old Friends Do” is here to remind us that friendship, love, and music are the true stars that never fade away.
*I received the ticket in exchange for an honest review of the show
The Way Old Friends Do
by Ian Hallard
Directed by Mark Gatiss
Thursday 17 August to Saturday 09 September 2023