The Way Old Friends Do – Review – Sheffield Lyceum Theatre
By Clare Jenkins, March 2023
There’s an iconic scene in Mel Brooks’s film The Producers where Nazi-clad dancers perform ‘Springtime for Hitler’ like a Busby Berkeley movie, and the audience’s jaws drop open in horrified disbelief. Well, ten minutes into Ian Hallard’s Butlin’s holiday camp-style comedy and my jaw was heading the same way.
It’s not just that the opening monologue (some kind of failed audition by a denim-clad young Olive Oyl wannabe, played by Rose Shalloo) is so falsetto-pitched and fast-paced as to be almost incomprehensible. Nor that the second scene, where attractively middle-aged Peter (Hallard again) is nervously preparing for a gay blind date, involves a conversation that’s initially out of sight and off-mic.
It’s the whole package of cliché-ridden script, cheap laughs, stiff-limbed acting (surely actors delivering their lines to the audience instead of each other went out with Frankie Howerd?) and pouty campness from James Bradshaw’s Edward, hands forever clasped in front of his groin as though terrified something might escape. “Are you being served?” as John Inman’s Mr Humphries would have asked. Well, up to a point.
Peter and Edward, two long-lost schoolfriends, meet up again 30 years on via the dating app Grindr. Somehow, because Peter is a mega-ABBA fan, this results in them deciding to perform a one-night stand as a tackily-dressed ABBA tribute band – in drag. The two men will take the female parts (“Less Agnetha, more Ann Widdecombe,” Edward says acerbically), while two female acquaintances (Donna Berlin and Tariye Peterside) will play Bjorn and Benny. Bring on the Barbie wigs and ginger beards! The one-night stand is a success, and they continue to perform until driven apart by sexually scheming photographer Christian (Andrew Horton).
We never actually see or hear the band onstage – apart from an excruciating scene where Edward prances on in an orange leotard, lilac socks and black headband, to perform a random, inept dance. Oh, and the ‘Dancing Queen’ curtain call, which had the audience singing and clapping along. Under Mark Gatiss’s direction, scenes end abruptly, snatches of ABBA songs punctuating the rotation of Janet Bird’s living-room set.
Another toe-curling scene is where Peter phones his nan (the disembodied voice of Miriam Margolyes) to tell her he’s bisexual. There are some pertinent points being made throughout about the impact of bullying, the importance of sexual honesty, infidelity and the meaning of love. But they’re never fully developed, instead playing second fiddle to sentimentality and the naff paraphernalia of white-blonde wigs, shiny pantaloons, glittery hats and gold lamé boots.
Maybe the fact that the show came to Sheffield’s three-tiered Lyceum straight from the Birmingham Rep explains the inaudibility of some of the performances. It certainly explains the fitful Brummie accents and the references to a gig in Redditch, carpet fitters from Moseley village and Acocks Green (cue joke, of course).
If you laugh at swearwords and the idea of Nick Clegg as a gay icon or Dr Chris Whitty causing hot flushes among middle-aged women; chuckle at references to hairy toenails and inadvertent “little wees’; and think lines about “middle-aged puffs prancing around in Lycra tights” and “Mother’s never been the same since they cancelled Bergerac” are cutting-edge humour, then you may well love this show. Certainly, there were some in the audience who laughed throughout.
“This is so cheesy. I can’t believe I’m doing this,” says Edward at the end to Peter as they start to sing the title song – badly. I can’t believe they’re doing this, either.
‘The Way Old Friends Do’ is at the Sheffield Lyceum until Saturday March 11th, then on tour
images: Darren Bell