Touring – reviewed at the Park Theatre, London
I’ve never been a big fan of tribute acts. After all if the performers have talent (and they almost always do) I’d far rather they gave us their own personality and musicality than copy somebody else’s. My idea of hell – well, one of them anyway – is watching endless recordings of that Saturday night TV staple Stars In Their Eyes; the words “Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be …” fill me with a high degree of horror. I can really only remember one occasion when I positively enjoyed the experience and that was Sarah-Louise Young’s An Evening Without Kate Bush but then that wasn’t really a tribute act as the term is normally understood.
The Way Old Friends Do, on tour and currently playing at London’s Park Theatre, steps into similar territory in that it also examines this sub-genre of entertainment by following the ups and downs of ABBA tribute band Head Over Heels. Edward and Peter came out to each other while still at school – the former as gay, the latter as an ABBA fan – and have now met up again in middle age. They form a tribute band as a one off to help out a friend but, as these things do in comedy, matters snowball and they end up going on a proper tour helped by their USP that the two friends will play Agnetha and Anna-Frid. Logic dictates therefore that Benny and Björn will need to cross dress too. So nervous struggling actor and over talker Jodie and reluctant pianist Mrs Campbell are dragooned into the cause. As Edward remarks “All we really need behind the keyboard is a vaguely human shape. As long as they’re wearing a beard.”
It’s a standard sitcom set up but pleasingly the show turns out to be about far more than that. The first half is full of positivity and joy as the plans come together though not, of course, without the odd hiccup along the way. But, in line with the trajectory of ABBA themselves, the second half traces a line of wistful (Scandinavian?) melancholy as the dream falls apart and the group disintegrates in a haze of betrayal and recriminations. Finally, again mirroring real life, the group reforms for a valedictory coda. Laughs are plentiful fuelled by some sharp one liners in Ian Hallard’s witty, gag-filled script but this is solidly underpinned by the examination of some bigger issues such as enduring friendship, fandom, aspiration, school bullying, mid-life crises and the joy of performing.
The cast are clearly having a (disco) ball, particularly Hallard who plays Peter, the ABBA uber nerd and Agnetha wannabe who holds things together. James Bradshaw just about stays the right side of cliché as bitchy Edward, always ready with a camp and cutting quip which masks his insecurities and who has gone from being a closet homosexual to a closet dipsomaniac. I did wonder whether some audience members might take offence at the portrayal but if they did they decided to keep quiet; if nothing else it was at least in line with the sort of depiction that would have been prevalent in the real ABBA’s heyday (Are You Being Served? anyone?).
Stealing the show on almost every line she delivered is the highly experienced and eminently watchable Sara Crowe as the redoubtable Mrs Campbell. Truth to tell she had all the best dialogue anyway but Crowe’s comic timing and use of understated delivery ensured that every one of her lines firmly hit home. Rose Shalloo had a lovely opening sequence (unfortunately not really developed sufficiently in the rest of the play) where she overshares with the group’s stage manager Sally (Donna Berlin) – this latter role, I felt was a little underwritten but gained traction towards the end. I’m afraid I really didn’t buy the plot twist with young Australian interloper Christian (Andrew Horton) who seemed to exist merely to drive the plot line about betrayal. Miriam Margolyes and Paul O’Grady are also involved though, alas, only as voices.
One of the real joys of the piece is the design work of Janet Bird. Her revolving set – back walls formed by the Bᗺ of the group name and the two adjacent doors by AA – instantly conjured up a 1970s aesthetic yet was generic enough to suit the many locations being evoked (the stage hands could do with being a little quieter). The real triumph here though was the spot on costumes which were simply brilliant recreations of some iconic pieces including flares, capes, jumpsuits, flamboyant wigs, any amount of stack heeled boots/shoes and copious use of gold lamé and silver glitter; it’s a real feast for the eyes. Expertly directed by the ever dependable Mark Gatiss (Hallard’s real life other half) The Way Old Friends Do is a surprising delight which does what it says on the tin … and then a bit more. If you’d like a heavy dose of nostalgia and a thoroughly entertaining evening then look no further. You’ll certainly pay a lot less than the holographic recreation at the ABBA arena just down the road in East London and probably have just as much fun. And at least Hallard and company are actually in the building and doing it for real.