Interview | Mark Gatiss & Ian Hallard | The Way Old Friends Do

Ian Hallard & Mark Gatiss

The Way Old Friends Do.

In 1988, two school friends tentatively come out to one another: one as gay, the other – more shockingly – as an ABBA fan. Nearly thirty years later, a chance meeting sets them on a brand-new path and they decide to form the world’s first ABBA tribute band – in drag! But can their friendship survive the tribulations of a life on the road which includes platform boots, fake beards and a distractingly attractive stranger?

This is a story that will appeal to anyone who understands how it feels to be a fan: of ABBA or of anyone. 

Written by and starring Ian Hallard and directed by Mark Gatiss this show promises to be lots of fun.

Ian and Mark were asked a few questions to put us in the mood.

What appealed to you about this project?

MG: I knew Ian was up to something. I was away on holiday on the Isle of Wight with the rest of his family, and he was in a show in London and so couldn’t come. He told me, “I’ve been writing something”, and when I read it, I thought it was great. It was fully formed. It was very touching, very funny, very true. A delight really. Write what you know, as they say – it felt very authentic.

This is the first play you wrote, Ian. Had you thought about writing before this?

IH: I’d always thought it seemed to require a colossal amount of confidence, if not arrogance, to say, “There hasn’t been a play that’s sufficiently tackled this one particular topic, and I am uniquely placed to be the person to write this play.” Then I just got over myself, and once I’d decided to try and write something, it was motivated by what I myself wanted to be in. I thought, “Well, if it’s the first thing I write, I’m going to write a part for myself. What would I be most excited about if my agent rang tomorrow with a script for me to read? It would be an offer to play Agnetha from Abba.” Then I just had to reverse engineer things and construct a storyline in which that could happen.

Tell us about the inspiration behind The Way Old Friends Do.

IH: It’s very easy to pitch in one line: two old school friends form the world’s first drag Abba tribute band. It does exactly what it says on the tin. When I told my friends, they got excited because at first they thought I was actually setting up a drag Abba tribute band. Then, once I’d had the idea, I did extensive googling to see if such a thing already existed, and as far as I’m aware, it doesn’t. Who knows? It might give somebody else the idea now!

Will The Way Old Friends Do provide us with some much-needed escapism?

MG: Absolutely. It’s just the sort of play that people need right now. It’s extremely celebratory, it’s about friendship, about love, about fun. It’s also about life and about time and how it changes us. But principally, it’s just a really entertaining show.

Is the play at all autobiographical?

IH: The background setting is autobiographical. It’s about a gay, middle-aged man from Birmingham who is a massive Abba fan. So that much is very much based on real life. But the actual events of the play are entirely fictitious.

Ian, what can you tell us about your character in the play, Peter?

IH: He’s lived in Birmingham all his life. He’s a big Abba fan, obviously. He got into them through his mum, who died when he was only a child. So he was brought up by his grandmother, which mirrors the real life of Frida from Abba. Then a chance meeting via a gay dating app means he ends up running into the kid he was great friends with at school whom he’d lost touch with. And that sets the whole crazy series of events in motion.

And what about the rest of the characters?

IH: Well, they’re a pretty diverse bunch. There’s Peter’s old schoolfriend, Edward, who is played by James Bradshaw, best known for his role as Max DeBryn in Endeavour. Edward’s camp and waspish, but deeply insecure underneath it all. Jodie – as played by Rose Shalloo – is a young actress who you could say has more enthusiasm than talent. Then there’s the gorgeous Australian photographer Christian, played by Andrew Horton – who’s just finished playing a superhero in Netflix’s Jupiter’s Legacy.

MG: The wonderful, Olivier-winning Sara Crowe is the eccentric Mrs Campbell, who amongst other quirks, has a deep-seated suspicion of Michael Palin. And finally there’s their long-suffering, no-nonsense stage manager, Sally, played by Donna Berlin, who has to try and corral them all into some kind of order.

IH: A lot of the comedy in the show comes from flinging these six characters together and observing how they interact.

I assume friendship is a major theme in the play?

IH: Yes. I was interested in exploring friendship, as opposed to a romantic relationship between these two middle-aged, queer men. With The Way Old Friends Do, I had a ready-made title from Abba’s back catalogue, and I knew very early on that the final scene of the play would revolve around that song. So everything leads up to that.

What’s it like working professionally with your husband?

MG: It’s very much about having a shorthand. We’ve had two rehearsed readings of the play so far, and as the scene is unfolding, I know what Ian will be wanting to say to me. That’s very helpful. Also, we can compare notes at the end of the evening without having to organise a special notes session!

IH: We’ve done it quite a few times before, but this is going to be a slightly different dynamic because we haven’t worked together as director and writer, and certainly not on stage, so watch this space. But given past experiences, I have no cause for concern!

MG: These things aren’t guaranteed to work, of course. A lot of couples never work together because they’d rather leave it at the door, but so far, so good!

IH: Look at Abba. Romantic relationships kick-started the band, although admittedly it did all go awry subsequently.

MG: Yes, we’d better not follow Abba down that line!

IH: Ah well, if we do, we’ll just end up getting back together in forty years’ time.

The Way Old Friends Do is not a musical, is it?

IH: That’s right, it’s a play rather than a musical. We’re not trying to compete with Mamma Mia! It’s a backstage play, very much in the vein of The Full Monty or Stepping Out: a bunch of plucky amateurs deciding to put on a show. It’s about those characters and their relationships. Although Abba is very much the setting, and it’s part of the show, it’s not a play about Abba it’s a play about being an Abba fan.

Did you get the approval of the Abba estate?

IH: Yes. They know about it and they’re happy for it to go ahead. I would have been devastated to be slapped down by my heroes because they didn’t want the play to happen. Happily, we do have their blessing!

Have you always been a huge Abba fan?

MG: Yes. They’ve had different phases of their existence which people can hop on at: Eurovision, the Abba Gold revival, Mamma Mia and now Voyage! But they’re loved because they’re just so bloody good. Quality will out. They have just an astonishing range of hits and styles and genres. They’re both gloomy Swedes and insanely infectious disco-mongers.

IH: My mother was pregnant with me when they won Eurovision in 1974. Although that makes it sound as if it was some kind of immaculate conception via the magic of Waterloo. I should add that I wasn’t actually conceived at that precise moment. But yes, it’s been a lifetime of devotion for me. I have an old university friend who I’ve known since I was 21. I hadn’t seen her for years, but just after the pandemic she came down to visit. We went for dinner and we were chatting about my play. I said, “I don’t know if you remember, but I’m a bit of an Abba fan.” And she just looked at me and said, “Ian, it’s literally the first thing that comes to my mind when I think about you!”

And what do you hope that audiences take away from the show?

IH: Just a great night out. If you love Abba, there are plenty of little Easter eggs and moments for you. But if you don’t know anything about them, or don’t even like them – yes, there are such people out there! – it speaks about being a fan. We’re all a fan of something. That level of devotion and ownership is universal. But I also think the six characters are fun people that audiences will enjoys spending time with. I hope people will laugh and be touched – and then rebook!

MG: It’s truthful, it’s moving and it’s joyous – that’s what I like to see in a play. Like Abba, it’s bittersweet, but ultimately very, very upbeat, and a joy to be around.

The Way Old Friends Do will play at the Theatre Royal Brighton from 2nd – 6th May 2023

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