The Way Old Friends Do

What a joy to sit in the semi dark and be so charmingly entertained. Ian Hallard’s homage to ABBA is simply a delight, a witty confection of a play that will put smiles on the faces of ABBA fans everywhere, and does it without resorting the trite, simplistic and formulaic cliches of the jukebox musical.

The secret of the success is no doubt in the link to the Scandi pop sensation who rose to fame after winning the Eurovision Song Contest here in Brighton, that is a given, but for me the success lies in one word in the title and that word is friends.

This is a play about old friendships and about new friendships, it’s also about flawed relationships and exploitation. If that sounds dark then fear not, Hallard serves the whole with a rich helping of witty one liners and acid drops.

The production is beautifully staged, a very elegant and stylish set from Janet Bird works on many levels and is beautifully lit, and her costumes, well they are as daft as the originals and who didn’t love them?

Mark Gatiss has directed with a gentle hand, it could be served up as camp farce, but there is a delicacy to the relationships as they unfurl and twist and there is reverence too, a sense of respect for the ABBA legend. Hallard’s gags are very funny but Gatiss has allowed them to sit in the whole in a very natural way rather than pushing them forward.

All of this of course would be as nothing were it not for a great cast and the production has been blessed with just that. Rose Shalloo is hilarious as the garrulous and shrill Jodie with an opening speech delivered at breathtaking breakneck speed. Donna Berlin’s Sally simply has to use her eyes in response and she handles it beautifully. James Bradshaw’s Edward is camp and rather old fashioned, a classic queen, not old but rather old fashioned, but he is out. Old friend Peter is played by playwright Ian Hallard as a far more modern being, professing to be bisexual but still partly in the closet, these portrayals of two contemporaries living such different gay lives is thought provoking and beautifully handled.

Andrew Horton’s queer Ozzie Christian, by name not by religion, is the spanner in the works, an initial charm that turns to treachery in a way that I do not doubt many of us recognised. And voice-overs from Miriam Margoyles and the late Paul O’Grady add a touching edge and a moment of sadness too.

Finally to my favourite performance of the evening and what a gift of a role for the brilliant Sara Crowe. The part of Mrs Campbell is so well crafted, her gradual immersion into the plot could not have been better handled and offers her the opportunity to display her expert comic timing. It’s not the biggest part but she certainly gets some of the biggest laughs and well deserved they are too.

So once again, how nice it is to sit in the dark and laugh out loud, but not without having to think about the nature of friendships and loyalty and deceit. I could happily see it again and again because as with any great piece of comic writing, I am sure some of the gags were lost in laughter.

Andrew Kay

2 May

Theatre Royal Brighton

Rating: ★★★★★

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