4 stars out of 5
“Full of heart”
Affectionate new comedy exploring the highs and lows of friendships and fandom
It’s amazing how much a Swedish pop band from the 1970s still impacts on our entertainment scene almost half a century later. From Mamma Mia! in all its incarnations to the virtual live concert Voyage, the music of ABBA appears to be embedded in our culture. It’s now also the catalyst for Ian Hallard’s new play, directed by Mark Gatiss, in which a couple of old friends decide to form an ABBA tribute band.
Peter (Hallard) and Edward (James Bradshaw) hook up on a dating app, only to discover that they were once schoolmates. Although they are romantically incompatible, Peter is determined to nurture their former friendship, and their mutual passion for ABBA leads them to create a tribute act. What makes their turn different from most, however, is that Peter and Edward will perform as Agnetha and Anni-Frid, and the search is on to find women to play Benny and Björn. Their show is a success, until the intervention of another ABBA superfan not only threatens to destroy the group, but also Peter and Edward’s already complicated friendship.
Among all the platform heels and synthetic wigs, Hallard offers pertinent observations on mature gay friendships, while contemplating a lingering legacy of gay shame. Peter is cheery, amiable but essentially still in the closet to all but his closest friends, while Edward is married to an older man but looking around elsewhere for sex. Hallard weaves these issues into a humorous script that at first resembles Richard Harris’ Stepping Out and then rapidly turns into All About Eve, with the arrival of the duplicitous Anni-Frid wannabe Christian (Andrew Horton).
The female characters are slightly underwritten, but they get all the best lines, and inflict an interesting dynamic on Peter and Edward’s friendship. Rose Shalloo is the nervous but upbeat chatterbox Jodie, engaged to perform as Björn, while Donna Berlin is the assertive stage manager Sally. Sara Crowe as the austere rehearsal pianist Mrs Campbell is a riot of understatement, providing some of the biggest laughs of the evening.
Gatiss’ buoyant production finds an easy balance between the drama and the broader comedy, complemented by a clever revolving composite set from designer Janet Bird. Hallard, whose 2022 comedy Horse-Play proved problematic, is thankfully finding his feet as a promising comedy writer. There’s both pain and pathos in Edward’s self-destructive behaviour, and the comedy thrives when relieved by darker tones. The play is whimsical, but full of heart, and it features enough witty one-liners to lift the spirits, whether or not you’re an ABBA fan.