Browse reviews

Brighton Year-Round 2023

The Way Old Friends Do

A Birmingham Rep production presented by James Seabright in association with Jason Haigh-Ellery and Park Theatre

Genre: Comedy, Contemporary, Drama, LGBTQ+ Theatre, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Theatre

Venue: Theatre Royal Brighton


Low Down

In a show celebrating the revival of friendship, twice, through the love of a non-binary ABBA tribute band, it’s good to know who you can rely on. You can rely on this scintillating, bittersweet play too. Absolutely recommended.

Director Mark Gatiss. Set and Costume Designer Janet Bird, Lighting Designer Andrew Exeter Sound Designer Ben Harrison, Casting Director Mark Frankum CDG.

Assistant Director Gavin Joseph, Costume Supervisor Kay Wilton. Props Supervisor Claire Browne, Production Managers Ian Taylor, James Anderton, CSM Megan Bly, ASMs James Prendergast, Toby Holloway, Head of Wardrobe & Wigs Emily Leaff Pond, Production Relighter & Electrician Joe Samuels, Production Carpenter Thomas Baum, Lighting Programmer Oliver Colley.

Till May 6th and on tour till June 10th


There’s a poignant moment when even the joy of this production’s overtaken. At the start of Ian Hallard’s The Way Old Friends Do, directed by Mark Gatiss arriving at Theatre Royal Brighton, the first of two offstage voices we hear is a Radio DJ: Paul O’Grady, who’s reprising his role in Annie this year, we’re told.

Perhaps it’s good the programme hasn’t been amended. O’Grady would have loved that. In a show celebrating the revival of friendship, twice, through the love of a non-binary ABBA tribute band, it’s good to know who you can rely on. You can rely on this scintillating, bittersweet play too.

The other voice – with considerably more to say – is Miriam Margolyes, the Nan of Peter (Ian Hallard himself, showing each shade of feeling in his poise). Birmingham, spring 2015: Peter’s expecting a Grindr visit, is shocked when old schoolfriend Edward (James Bradshaw – wonderfully prissy, geeky and insecure) turns up – as is Eddie. But no-one calls him Eddie now, Edward protests. Edward came out to Peter at school. Peter came out to Edward – that he was an ABBA fan.

Peter’s bisexuality and Sixth Form memories of slippery kisses/blisses get short shrift from Edward. “I had a falafel wrap on Sunday. That doesn’t make me a vegetarian!” Peter’s “Ex-Catholic? It’s like Herpes, it never really goes away” promises a whiplash this side of Vicious. The dialogue’s as sharp- and wincingly funny – throughout. But then Hallard’s edited Gatiss’ scripts.

Rewind, as we start with breathless Jodie (Rosie Shalloo, her tonsil-tickling, stratospheric tessitura) panicking over an audition, as stage manager Sally (Donna Berlin, all commonsense and wry warmth) gets her to calm down, when she gets ten words in. Sally knows Peter; when he arrives the idea of an ABBA tribute band gets born. With reverse genders.

Edward’s ambushed as Agnetha, Peter’s Anni-Frid, as he always wanted to be (she’s a Scorpio too), and with Sally as stage manager and Jodie surprising herself as Bjorn… that leaves unsuspecting Mrs Campbell (Sara Crowe, both funny and poignant, and if you were around in the 70s, you’d expect her to intone: “Flash cleans baths without scratching”). With beard and keyboard she’s a dead spit for Benny.

What this play manages is of course pure feelgood with, in the second half, some Swedish – or British – melancholy. It’s not just the magnificent revolving wall central to Janet Bird ‘s superb white set looking so 1970s, that spins so consummately; it’s a metaphor for this effortless soufflé with not a weak link. The seemingly modest set though deserves praise. With its U shapes turned on their sides, echoing two arched entrances each side, it’s a versatile 70s spaceship statement; and shifts from studios through bedrooms through hotel lobbies… Andrew Exeter’s lighting naturally plays on the white. With Ben Harrison’s sound we get brief spectacle when we need it, particularly the end. Bird’s costumes too are gorgeous when she pulls out the stops.

But the point is despite bursts of ABBA, we’re not overwhelmed. Mama Mia this isn’t. Instead it’s a study of people caught up in one person’s ABBA obsession, persuaded they can all enjoy it, and bonding. And along comes their No 1 Fan, Australian photographer, soon partner Christian (Andrew Horton, previously a cute Waiter, later surfer-deadly cute). This is where a straightforward feelgood story with the band’s 18 months of tour tribulations, morphs into something other.

Hallard enjoys period jokes, precisely locating his play from spring 2015 onwards, with his characters mainly Brummies. First, there’s a delicious thought that Nick Clegg’s on Grindr. Later “he’s got lots of free time now” and later still there’s the briefest glance at 2016’s tribulations as we pass the watershed of before and after; finally we’re in 2023.

Hallard’s written nothing predictable except laughter. The latter half’s original, disturbing, authentic – ultimately heartwarming, with (spoiler) a duet to live for. This emphatically isn’t Quartet – though there’s mini-echoes towards the end. And, of course there’s the song giving the play its title. It’ll last too, because its themes are perennial, treated with freshness and terrific one-liners. Even if you can’t see this, get the script from NHB.

Hallard leads this sure-stepping ensemble, where if the emotional burden is on him and Bradshaw, evoking a painfully funny and tender friendship – not without betrayals and years-long silences – they’re not alone in excellence, as they repeatedly recalibrate – and we celebrate – their friendship.

Shalloo’s a real discovery – vocally vertiginous, appealing in her hapless decency, exposed yet through experience finding her niche. Berlin provides excellent support as grounding confidante, ready with hugs and downright advice – stage manager incarnate. Crowe too is a classic hoot, not without a glint of warmth and bewilderment, as well as springing comedy like a trap. Horton enjoys the suavest role of all – and provides the greatest – very audible – shocks to this audience. Absolutely recommended.