OBSESSIVE fandom is a weird phenomenon, very useful in Mastermind, very competitive and totally absorbing. And it’s something that ABBA seems to have magnetised and intensified, if Ian Hallard’s play The Way Old Friends Do (a song from 1980’s Super Trouper) is anything to go by.
Always a favourite with the LGBTQXYZ+ community, long before they were known as such, the Swedish (and Norwegian) band has also been the focus of tribute bands for many decades. Hallard’s play, coming to the end of a UK tour at Bath until 3rd June, manages to combine ultraABBAism, gay life in the 2020s and tribute bands all in one evening of drama, pathos, comedy and music. And it’s directed by his husband, the extravagantly talented Mark Gatiss, with the voices of Miriam Margolyes and the late Paul Grady, just to add to the mix.
So what’s it really like?
You have to be an ABBA fan to appreciate the many hilarious and arcane snippets about Bjorn, Benny, Anni-Frid and Agnetha – but don’t expect to hear too many songs. My guess is it would have been too expensive to get the rights to perform them.
You need to be unshockable if you don’t want to gasp out loud at some of the language and men kissing each other! Several of the Bath audience were unable to suppress their consternation.
And maybe you need to be interested in the dynamics of tribute bands. I’m in a unique position here, listing forthcoming events at theatres and concert halls around south and south west England and knowing just HOW MANY tribute bands there are out there. So it was no great step for me to believe that someone might try to infiltrate such a band and gradually re-people it with his friends. And that person being an Australian hunk was no more surprising.
Actor Ian Hallard, a lifelong ABBA afficionado, not only realised the gap in the market and wrote the play with the added twist of turning it drag, but wrote himself into the leading role of Peter which he, naturally, played very well. He is joined by James Bradshaw, best known as the pathologist in Endeavour, here playing a very different character. He is the bustling old school friend Edward, too fond of the bottle and venturing from his long and safe marriage to the much-older Melvin onto the riches of Tinder. And the first link he makes is with Peter.
Peter’s best chum is the lesbian stage manager Sally (Donna Berlin) and her wife runs an arts centre that has been let down for a sold-out ABBA tribute show. So Peter and Edward persuade one another to revive a disastrous school concert, and appear as the girls in ABBA. All they need is two real girls to play the boys. Daffy would-be actress Jodie (the very fast talking Rose Shalloo, seen in Bristol in Wise Children’s Mallory Towers) and the sadly underwritten Mrs C (the hilarious Sara Crowe) are dragooned into the costumes of Benny and Bjorn. It’s so successful that they carry on, by popular demand. Andrew Horton is the hunk.
That is quite enough spoilers for this show, which really can’t decide what it wants to be. Some of the audience did those 2020s mandatory whoops and screeches at the end – already having taken selfies backed by the stage. Some left at the interval. Some are still wondering.
Photographs by Darren Bell.