Live Review: The Way Old Friends Do at York Theatre Royal

This is a play I knew very little about so I went along with a totally open mind. The result was an enjoyable evening.

By Angie Millard

Photos by Darren Bell

Naturally, I had seen Mark Gatiss on TV with Steve Pemberton in The League of Gentleman and was aware that he had written Sherlock which starred Benedict Cumberbatch. He has also been on our screens in a range of parts for more than 20 years and is a talented actor, script writer and author so I expected only the best. He obviously worked closely with Ian Hallard who is the writer and his life partner so I hoped for some good theatre.

In The Way Old Friends Do, we see part of the zeitgeist of contemporary culture where gayness and bisexuality are celebrated just as Woodstock was used to symbolise the 1960s mood. A couple of old school friends are reunited through Grindr and recall coming out to one another 25 years ago; one as gay, the other as an ABBA fan. 

Yes it was uncool to like ABBA during the ’80s!

It follows that once they have discovered that an ABBA tribute group has let down a local Arts Centre, they will  decide to create a gender reversed alternative. The result is  very funny especially when it comes to the women who play Benny and Bjorn. We are accustomed to male drag but rarely see the alternative.

Ian Hallard, the author of the play, is Peter, a diffident character who rings his gran regularly and only plucks up the courage to tell her of his gender preferences half way through the show. James Bradshaw plays Edward, his old friend, who is out and proud and in a long term relationship with an older man. When Christian, played by Toby Holloway (on the night I saw it), comes along to act as their agent and seduces both guys, problems surface. Christian is an unpleasant manipulator and the chief characters are seen as his play things.

However, the author does not really seem to explore the psychological issues. This could be because too much analysis would turn the play into an entirely different beast and Hallard prefers to stick with largely camp humour. By the end of the piece we see their mutual pain and there is a reconcilement.

Sara Crowe is amusing as Mrs Campbell. the pianist and alter-ego of Benny. Her one-liners are delivered with faultless timing. Rose Shalloo as a newly graduated Drama school student is an eager but inexperienced member of the motley crew and is a tad shrill at times. Both women offer an effective foil to the male couple, while Donna Berlin supplies the reality of a fully grounded stage manager.

The set and costume designed by Janet Bird are superb. She uses a revolving stage for both sides of the theatre settings and the ABBA logo in which the letter ‘B’s are reversed to signify the gender confusion. A clever device.

Andrew Exeter is the lighting designer and Ben Harrison is responsible for the ABBA sound which accompanies every scene change.

The publicity says the show is about devotion, desire and dancing queens but it is also about friendship and disloyalty. At the end when Bradshaw and Hallard sing the opening lines to Knowing Me Knowing You, we see acceptance and forgiveness too. Gatiss celebrates all these aspects of human nature but never allows the actors to become overly sentimental.

It’s a good night’s entertainment but don’t go looking for too much subtlety.

The Way Old Friends Do is being performed at York Theatre Royal until 10 June 2023. Its director is Mark Gatiss.