Theatre

The story of the world's first drag ABBA tribute band

Ian Hallard and Mark Gatiss's play following a drag ABBA tribute band is coming to London's Criterion Theatre

A man wearing a drag version of Agnetha from ABBA's outfit, as a woman leans over his shoulder looking at a laptop

Ian Hallard as Peter and Donna Berlin as Sally. Image: Darren Bell

In 1980, ABBA released their seventh studio album, Super Trouper. It ends with a live recording of The Way Old Friends Do, a song about friendship’s power to carry us through “times of joy and times of sorrow”. 

Now, a play of the same name is coming to the Criterion Theatre in London’s West End. Written by Ian Hallard and directed by husband Mark Gatiss, the play, which toured 11 English venues earlier this year, tells the tale of the world’s first drag ABBA tribute band. 

In 1988, Birmingham schoolboys Peter and Edward come out to each other – Edward as gay and Peter, more shockingly, as an ABBA fan. Almost 30 years later, a chance match on Grindr brings them back into one another’s orbit. 

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Rekindling their friendship, Peter (Hallard) and Edward (Anton Tweedale) form the band with Jodie (Rose Shalloo) and Mrs Campbell (Sara Crowe), assisted by Peter’s friend Sally (Donna Berlin). The central cast is completed by Christian (Andrew Horton), a handsome stranger and fellow ABBA fanatic whose arrival throws the group into disarray. 

In April, Hallard and Gatiss appeared on the cover of Big Issue North ahead of the play’s residencies at The Lowry in Salford in May and York Theatre Royal in June. They generously signed 20 copies of the magazine for vendors to sell for £10 outside theatres. 

At the time, Vasile, who sold 10 signed issues in York, had just been served a no-fault eviction notice. He had been locked out of his home, unable to collect his possessions, including his ID, and was living in a nearby hostel. The £80 profit he earned from the sales helped him to cover the accommodation costs and save for new housing, which he will be moving into soon. 

Whether or not you’re sending out an SOS, generosity is at the heart of The Way Old Friends Do’s story. The characters are wonderfully three-dimensional, dealing with issues ranging from the precarity of working in the arts to addiction to marital dissatisfaction. But the narrative never condemns their foibles, and, like the song it takes its name from, instead celebrates the patience, forgiveness and love at the heart of friendship. 

The play was written in 2019 and is set primarily in 2015 and 2016, but chimes with our times. A subplot
concerns Sally’s difficulties in conceiving with her wife via IVF. Just last month, Megan and Whitney Bacon-Evans withdrew their High Court case against the Frimley NHS branch after representatives agreed to offer same-sex couples equal access to IVF. (General NHS guidelines currently state that IVF is only to be offered to “women under the age of 43 who have been trying to get pregnant through regular unprotected sex for two years”.) 

Though not overtly political – the play is a comedy, though it tends to leave audiences with a tear in their eye  – acceptance of queer experiences, both internally and within a community, is a central concern. What Christian terms ABBA’s “magical appeal to the LGBT+ community” provides a backdrop for topics ranging from the fear of coming out in middle age to the struggle to connect authentically with other LGBT+ people. This theme of connection feels particularly resonant in a post-Covid world. 

“It’s a coincidence in some ways, because I wrote the first draft before Covid was a twinkle in anyone’s eye,” Hallard says. “But in the age of social media, a Facebook update or a tweet can make you feel that you’re in contact with someone because you know what’s going on in their life, but it’s not the same as actually meeting up in person and having an actual conversation.” 

For ABBA enthusiasts, the play is particularly delightful, rife with references for the most attuned ears to detect. Hallard has been a lifelong fan in the most literal sense – his mother was pregnant with him during Eurovision 1974 – and Gatiss also loves the band’s music. 

“The songs feel like they’ve always been with us,” Gatiss says. “You can’t quite imagine a time when we didn’t have Dancing Queen or Voulez-Vous or Waterloo. It’s just a wonderful part of our culture that’s now sort of indestructible, I think. They’ve brilliantly survived passing fashions and reinvented themselves and brought their music to new platforms all the time.” 

But the play is “not overly nostalgic”, Hallard insists. And it’s not just for ABBA devotees, either. It’s hilarious and poignant, if you have ever loved any band, film or sports team – or if you have ever felt indebted to the loyalty and love of a friend.

The Way Old Friends Do is at the Criterion Theatre from 17 August to 9 September.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop. The Big Issue app is available now from the App Store or Google Play

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