ABBASOLUTELY A DELIGHT
If there is a formula for a cheerful touring play in our frazzled and disputatious times, it would go like this: warm but a bit rude, affirmative but absurd, with sudden big laughs, a dash of nostalgic feeling and portraits of some relationships we’ve all survived and feel it’s time to laugh at.
Which is not to say that Ian Hallard’s play is formulaic: just to signal that you’re a curmudgeon if you don’t warm to it. Especially if one of your dreams of comradeship involves starting an iffy pub tribute band.
For here is Peter (played by Hallard himself), alone in his lateish thirties, preening nervously for a Grindr date as his Nan rings up about Sunday lunch. The date proves to be Eddie, a slightly less well preserved but even more camp schoolfriend. It’s his first time on the app because he has a solid, but rather older, civil partner and in his uncertain way wants an adventure. Momentary embarrassment (“this is not going to happen”) becomes reminiscence: when Eddie (James Bradshaw) came out long ago so did Peter – not yet as gay but as an Abba superfan. They fall in with Sally (Donna Berlin), a lesbian whose wife is a show-promoter lacking a tribute band, and together recruit yowling wannabe Jodie (Rose Shalloo). She is a bravely aspiring but fairly awful actress, (“at drama school I corrected a director who thought an Olivier was an actor!”).
Add, picked up faute de mieux because she can play the piano and be Benny, Mrs Hermione Campbell. She’s a real creation (given full rein by Sara Crowe) who is at a loose end right now because she thought her sister was staying “but that was five years ago” . Because she never buys a new kitchen calendar. You can see why Mark Gatiss, king of darkish harmless absurdity, was the right director for this.
All in all, it could hardly hit a better cultural spot, with even the edgiest raving about the holograms in Abba Voyage : but alongside that, it is a moment to remember the healing power of honest drag, before pronoun-mania and the fashionability of full-on serious offence-taking trans identities. Eddie and Peter don’t want to be women or to mock them, any more than Grayson Perry does. They just need to free themselves into the decorative flamboyance too long denied to men. They get the joke the audience gets the joke. It’s happy rather than bullying identity politics or nasty RuPaul competitiveness . Eddie’s dressing-up camp is of the old defensive kind: Peter just wants his Nan to enjoy the show and not be shocked. There are many Abbaoid moments to love, not least Eddie’s first appearance in an orange leotard and the one, mesmerizing, final moment where the two old friends reconcile.
And many, many treasurable lines poking skewers into our culture in general. A favourite being from Mrs Campbell, about finding Michael Palin a touch creepy. “A bit unsettling. All that travelling, what’s he running FROM?” Pleasure all the way. Have a happy tour!
seen at end of Park Theatre run, but now tour:
Guildford, Exeter & onward to 10 June. https://www.thewayoldfriendsdo.com/