When the tour of new comedy The Way Old Friends Do opened in February, no-one could have imagined the next month we’d be saying goodbye to Paul O’Grady.
On hearing his distinctive Scouse voice open the show audiences would probably laugh before any cast take to the stage. But tonight, at The Lowry’s Quays Theatre, there is a collective sigh of sadness in the auditorium. Not the best start for a comedy you might think. But as the evening goes on, for a bitter-sweet comedy steeped in nostalgia, this nod to one of our nation’s most loved drag queens and entertainers, feels fitting. We hear his voice once again in act 2, but by then we are so steeped in the story that O’Grady’s DJ sparks the laughs that were always intended.
Ian Hallard’s script sparks with witty one-liners and ABBA trivia – for superfans like himself. But even if you don’t get every reference to the Swedish supergroup, there’s plenty to enjoy in this original fast-paced comedy. Hallard generously gives every one of the 6-strong cast a piece of the comedy limelight, and never leaves the audience feeling that they’re not quite in on the joke.
The Way Old Friends Do takes its title from a lesser-known Abba song and tells the story of two school friends, Peter (played by Hallard) and Edward (James Bradshaw – Endeavor’s Dr Max DeBryn) who fate throws together again in mid-life and in another series of random coincidences they end up taking to the stage as an ABBA tribute band with a difference – where the women wear the beards.
But just as you’re thinking, oh, I get it, this is a musical comedy about an ABBA drag act – it’s not that either. While the band is what brings the characters together, the music is reserved for the numerous set changes in Janet Bird’s effective and deceptively simple revolving set and almost plays like a soundtrack to the character’s lives.
The focus here is on the friendships and the laughter. We’re told that as a teenager, in 1988, Edward came out to Peter as gay. At the same time, Peter shamefully admitted to being an ABBA fan. Fast forward 30 years and Peter is more open about his love of all things ABBA but is still hiding his homosexuality from his Nan (voiced as a series of phone conversations by Miriam Margolyes), while Edward is feeling the frustrations of being in a long-standing, civil partnership with a much older man. Their friendship will be tested by the introduction of a young, attractive waiter and ABBA fanatic, Christian (Andrew Horton).
While the exploration of male friendship takes centre stage, Hallard doesn’t neglect the supporting cast in adding to both the story and the laughs. Community piano player, Mrs Campbell’s bearded Benny is hilarious. The part is usually played by the brilliant Sara Crowe, who we were sorry to miss. But understudy, Tariye Peterside is terrific in both her physical comedy and comic timing – stealing many of the show’s laugh-out loud moments.
Rose Shalloo brings both comedy and sensitivity to neurotic out of work actor, Jodie who will do anything to be on the stage, even miming guitar to embody, Björn who she admits to knowing little about. While Donna Berlin as theatre producer, Sally whose lesbian partner is undergoing IVF treatment, touches on some of the deeper issues alongside the laughs.
Mark Gatiss (who is well-known from The League of Gentlemen and is Hallard’s real-life partner) directs the action with rip-roaring speed. There is not a dull spot in this fast-paced comedy. When all is said and done these dancing queens have put on a super trouper of a show that is definitely one to take a chance on.
The Way Old Friends Do is at The Lowry, Salford from 22-27 May 2023.