Simultaneously tender and funny, The Way Old Friends Do tracks the story of two old school pals who, in later life, decide to form the world’s first ABBA tribute band — in drag!
Before its world premiere at The Rep, next week, I video called the show's writer, star and Brummie, Ian Hallard (The Boys In The Band) alongside its director, and Ian's husband, Mark Gatiss (Sherlock, Doctor Who, The League of Gentlemen). After some technical difficulties, we managed to get a good line...
Where on Earth are you? Mark Gatiss: Guantanamo Bay! Ian Hallard: If this interview goes well they've promised to let us out.
That explains the bad signal. MG: Actually we're in a rehearsal space in Southwark, in London.
Are you looking forward to heading to Brum? IH: Very, very much. It's where I was born. It's my hometown and The Rep is my home theatre. Although I've never performed there before, so it's all very exciting. MG: I've been with Ian for 20 years so I've got to know the area rather well over that time and grown very fond of it. IH: My parents actually live in Solihull, so we're there more often there than we are in Birmingham, but we've been to The Rep a number of times and were there for the 50th anniversary gala. MG: We went to Shelly Farm not long ago, didn't we? We keep visiting stately homes in the area, too. IH: That's true: Packwood House, Baddesley Clinton, Kenilworth Castle. But the location for the play is loosely based on what was Solihull Library Theatre and is now The Core Theatre.
And do parts of the West Midlands pop-up during the show, as locations or mentions? IH: Oh very much so. Shirley Golf Club, Acocks Green, Kidderminster MG: Redditch, The Kingfisher Centre, Balsall Common... IH: Now we're just listing areas of the West Midlands!
What happens in Acocks Green?Tell me there's a bowling alley scene? IH: I can't tell you what happens in Acocks Green. It's top secret. MG: Didn't your nan live in Acocks Green? IH: She did indeed yes, well remembered.
Do the friends ever meet on The Ramp? IH [Laughing]: I'm sorry to inform you that the references never get quite that specific.
Not to worry. Can you tell us the premise of the play? IH: Well I suppose the one line pitch is that two old school friends meet up again and decide to form the world's first ABBA tribute band in drag. It's a comedy, you'll be shocked to learn. But it's about love and devotion and it's about what it means to be a fan. In this case it's about being a fan of ABBA, but it applies universally to being a fan of pretty much anything or anyone: a band, a TV show, a singer, a football team. It's very much in the vain of The Full Monty and Stepping Out. A team of plucky amateurs get together to put on a show, and it's about the relationships of the six characters, and their trials and tribulations. Fun, laughter and moments of moving vulnerability.
And it's not a big old singalong, is it? MG: No, it's not Mamma Mia 3 and it's important to stress that. It's a play that's tangentially about ABBA, devotion and dancing queens, as it says on the poster, but it's not 'featuring the songs of ABBA', in that way. Although we do have a big surprise in it, don't we? IH: Yeah, exactly. I don't think fans of ABBA's music will leave disappointed, let's put it that way. There's plenty sprinkled throughout to satisfy them.
Ian, what was it like growing up in Birmingham and Solihull in the 80s and how much of the play is about that experience? IH: Well it's not autobiographical, if that's what you mean. None of the plot is about me but small, shall we say, 'grace notes' might well have happened to me or to people I know. But on a wider level the background is of two central characters, in their mid to late 40s, who grew up in the closet, initially, and were bombarded with incredible amounts of homophobia from the tabloids and the media. There are parallels, yes. I think back now to my experience and almost weekly there were mentions in the letter pages of the local papers railing against the evils and perversions of homosexuality. And I remember how pervasive that was: "Oh my god. There's an awful lot of people out here who hate me because of what I am." And alongside that there was Section 28 and homophobia at school. So I think all of that certainly informs the play and informs the characters. But that is background. It's not an angst-ridden play about how these challenges affected the characters' lives. But it is, perhaps, what shaped them.
What do you make of present day Birmingham? IH: It's a lot shinier and cleaner than when my nan and I would pop in to the Bull Ring, that's for sure. MG: As an outsider, I'd like to say how much I look forward to visiting Birmingham. I'm a huge advocate of Brutalist architecture. I've played the NIA three times with the League of Gentlemen and I love the canals around there. It's a wonderful mixture of architectural styles and I like how a lot of buildings have been reconditioned to keep them in use, of late. I particularly like the central square [Centenary Square] on which The Rep is sat. We saw the Commonwealth bull there on one visit, in the summer.
The bull's gone missing, Mark. We don't know where it is.
Really? Like Shergar!
Exactly! But he's coming back, we've just heard. Tell me, you're married and work together. What's the key to making that a success? How do you not rip each others' heads off? IH: [Laughing] How have you not ripped each other's heads off, yet should be the question... We've worked together a few times, but this is the first time as writer/actor and directer. But I think it's about mutual respect and actually wanting to see one another. We are usually rather busy on separate projects and we can go weeks or months where we don't see very much of each other at all. So the luxury of being in the same rehearsal room is lovely. But Mark's role comes to an end after press night in Birmingham [after which a new director comes on board] and I continue touring it until mid-June, so we're making the most of it now. But we both have the same work ethos — we want to produce something that's very good, of course — but we want to have fun along the way, working with nice people who don't act like the play is the be-all-and-end-all. MG: Did you just say the Bjorn and end all? That's really rather good!
That's brilliant. There's my headline. MG: That's got to be a new ABBA tribute act, surely? IH: I don't think I did say that but Tom can check back the recording and see if it was said inadvertently!
You say it's not the Bjorn and end all, Ian, but there must be pressure? Obviously it's a passion project, it's your baby. You've written it and you star in it... IH: Yeah... I'm not sure I've quite anticipated how scary that is, yet. There's no getting away from it, is there? If people hate it, as the writer and a member of the cast, I can't kind of slink away. I have to turn up every day, still! But I'm hopeful they won't. Everyone's response so far has been positive and I don't think Mark would have signed up to direct had he not been confident. Comedy is incredibly subjective so it might not be to everyone's taste, but I think there's enough to it that most people will enjoy it. MG: It's a very heartwarming show. I think it's exactly what we need right now both to get people back in theatres but also to just give people a jolly good time. Anything related to ABBA tends to make people smile and it very much does that. It's a wonderful mix of glitter and melancholy, which is a beautiful combination. But most of all it's a really good night out.
And just as ABBA had a tough time gaining popularity in the 80s, but matured like a fine wine, so too Birmingham has grown increasingly 'cool' of late. Is there something to that or am I crowbarring Brum back into the the conversation, where it won't go?
[Both laughing] IH: One of the things I was keen to do when writing it was to make sure it was set in Birmingham given how little theatre, or film, tends to be set there, despite the importance of the place MG: Second city! IH: I mean in Peaky Blinders they all sound like they're from Liverpool. I've been in Doctors but even they struggle, I think, to find authentically local-sounding actors. So I was really keen to pen a play with... [realising it might not be quite as local as he had thought] ... a show set in Birmingham featuring a Scot and an Aussie!
Well you've bought me on to my final question nicely. Nolly — which stars Mark, of course — is now out on ITVX. It's set in Birmingham but shot predominantly in Manchester. Ian, I need your word that if The Way Old Friends Do gets a movie remake, you insist it's shot in Brum. IH: If I have any say in that, which I imagine I wouldn't, then I will do everything in my power to ensure that happens, yes.
'The Way Old Friends Do' is on at The Rep from Feb 17 to March 4. Book
SABBATH BALLET SABBATH:
TICKETS ON SALE TODAY
In an almighty marriage of two of the brightest jewels in Birmingham's illustrious cultural crown, Birmingham Royal Ballet is teaming up with Black Sabbath to produce Black Sabbath — The Ballet.
The brainchild of BRB's Director, Carlos Acosta, it will be performed by The Company's dancers and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia at Birmingham Hippodrome, September 23 to 30. Sabbath have been closely involved in developing this tantalising collab which promises a wild evening of dance and Sabbath sounds alongside full orchestrations of their work and original orchestral compositions inspired by the sound of metal.
The idea has been on Carlos Acosta’s mind since he first arrived in Brum at the start of 2020, just before the pandemic did its thing. Black Sabbath played their first ever gig in The Crown pub just a stone’s throw from Birmingham Royal Ballet’s base on Thorp Street. The pub was recently saved from bulldozers.
This full-evening promises to be a unique undertaking with three composers and three choreographers, led by renowned Pontus Lidberg (whose work has been performed by the Swedish Royal Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet) and Composer Chris Austin (whose work includes orchestrating the White Stripes' music) working alongside award-winning writer Richard Thomas (Jerry Springer, The Opera) to create an extraordinary metal symphony over three belting acts.
Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi said "Sabbath have always been innovators and never been predictable, and it doesn’t come any more unpredictable than this! I’d never imagined pairing Black Sabbath with Ballet but it’s got a nice ring to it. I’ve met with Carlos several times and his enthusiasm is infectious. I performed alongside some of the dancers at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony and they had an incredible energy, so I’m happy to go along for the ride with them, and see you on the other side."
Yes, Tony! This one will sell out, you can bet your bottom dollar on that. Tickets go on sale today (February 9) at 11am, here. Pointe me to the barre, I'm ready to rock...
TRUST IN THE SYSTEM
If there's one thing that ten years of running this e-Magazine has taught me it's that we Brummies like the dark stuff. And I don't mean Guinness.
Appearing at The Crescent Theatre February 23, 24 and 25, The System is a stage play thats concept is so bleak it could only possibly have been born in lockdown. Written and directed by University of Birmingham alum, Edward Loboda, it follows a world identical to ours with one key difference: Well over a hundred years ago a law was passed that states that once the elderly reach a certain age they are obliged to be euthanised — a law that has become more and more controversial the longer life expectancies have lengthened.
With that dystopian backdrop the action focuses on two families; one with multiple generations who have worked for the very governmental state department that enforces the law, and another family from which the matriarchal grandmother is approaching her timetabled end.
"The first time we performed this ," says Loboda "we did so on Zoom during lockdown and it resonated powerfully with our digital audience. Now, in Birmingham, the same cast are returning to do it live." £13
THAT'S SOME TOP OGRAPHY
Kings Heathen designer, Ellie Mellor, has topographised (probably not a word) areas of Brum and produced the results in print form. She’ll even add your house to the geography.
Currently Kings Heath, Moseley, Stirchley, Bournville, Harborne and Edgbaston have had the mapping treatment but should there be appetite Ellie will plunge headlong into other areas of the city.
Ellie describes herself as: "One hundred percent Brummie. I grew up in Kings Heath and spent my formative years knocking around the city’s parks and watching our friends attempt to skateboard on the steps outside the then Central Library,” she says. "Growing up, Snobs (the old Snobs of cours) was a Wednesday ritual, the Oasis Market was the only place to shop and the 50 was the predominant mode of travel. Kings Heath park and Moseley private park were favourite haunts – they still are, but these days it’s less cider drinking and more pram pushing.”
Ellie is the Marketing Manager at West Midlands Growth Company. Working with designers day in, day out to create campaigns and content that drive visitors to the city and region, she really got into the design side of the process and decided to train in graphic design. “Hard work on top of a full time job but I’ve loved every second,” she adds.
First Ellie chooses an area and researches the landmarks that could feature. “Anything that gives an area character could be added,” says Ellie. “From oddities like Stirchley’s Gorilla to major global attractions like Cadbury World. After this I use a contour mapping tool to work out the elevation of the landmarks. I then create the artwork in Illustrator, adding colour and typography to bring the map to life. If people supply their postcode I can add their home to the map, at no extra cost, creating a completely unique piece of artwork that no one else will own.”
Well, technically, your next door neighbour might. Choose from a range of colours and sizes here. Prices start at £8.
SUPER SUPPER CLUB
I have a serious soft spot for the Tan Rosie supper club. It was one of the first things I did, on my own, when I moved back to Brum over a decade ago, and I couldn't have felt more quickly surrounded by fantastic people. You don't have to go alone, of course, but you're in safe hands if you do. It's their first supper club in six years on April 22 and it takes place in the lovely Erdington home of Lee Sylvester (pictured, with her mom Monica). The pair make everything by hand and they’ll be serving Caribbean classics like spiced corn fritters and jerk chicken. It's BYOB with vegan options available. £48.50pp
Parents: Now's the time to book your kids' half term activities. Resorts World's Happy Half Term marks Children’s Mental Health Week and in addition to free sensory activities they've got three days of circus, drama and yoga workshops for ages 3 to 14. Each spot is just £6 with every attendee getting a £5 Resorts World Gift Card. Details —
Draw famous people with felt tip pens while slurping on cocktails, in Stirchley's Stir Stores. March 5, £16 per person gets you three drinks. South Birmingham liability, Tat Vision is, of course, your mentor. Book —
Also in Stirchley, this Saturday (Feb 11) make origami hearts at Artefact to adorn the nearby Valentine's tree. It's a freebie, this one. More —
Dog owners: Take part in the most unique dog obstacle course in the West Midlands, in Brueton Park’s Nature Reserve and Meadows, Solihull. The 2.5km course is suitable for most dogs and the £10 fee supports St Basil's. Details —
SHOUT Festival and Birmingham LGBT are hosting a singalong screening of Cabaret at The Nightingale on Feb 17. Your £5 fee includes a-bit-a-burlesque. —
Meet the authors of Birmingham: The Brutiful Years and take in Ikon Gallery's Horror in the Modernist Block exhibition. February 16 and free. —
A 26-piece orchestra with DJs and vocalists will play Ibiza bangers at The Forum, March 24. Early bird tickets save you a tenner. — Masterchef winner, Dan Lee, will be cheffing a fortnight-long residency at 1000 Trades in the JQ, starting Feb 20. If you've missed his numerous sellout pop-ups then this really is the time to nail down a true dining delight. Details and menu —
Plates by Purnell's, the new Edmund Street tapas restaurant from Glynn Purnell, has revealed its menu. The restaurant opens tomorrow and replaces Pinchos Café.
WORDS: Tom Cullen
PICS: Shutterstock (The System)
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