Knowing me,
knowing you

The League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss and his husband Ian Hallard are behind a play about two fans who form an ABBA tribute band

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Mark Gatiss was away on holiday on the Isle of Wight when he sensed his husband, who had stayed behind because of performing commitments, was up to something.

“He told me, ‘I’ve been writing something’, and when I read it, I thought it was great,” says Gatiss, the comic writer and actor who made his name with The League of Gentlemen. “It was fully formed. It was very touching, very funny, very true. A delight really. Write what you know, as they say.”

What Gatiss’s husband and West End actor Ian Hallard knows is ABBA.

“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,” says Hallard. “I should add that I wasn’t actually conceived at that precise moment.”

Set in 1988, The Way Old Friends Do follows two Birmingham school friends as they tentatively come out to one another – one as gay, the other, more shockingly, as an ABBA fan. Nearly 30 years later, a chance meeting leads them 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?

Gatiss is also a fan. “They’re loved because they’re just so bloody good. Quality will out,” he says. “They have just an astonishing range of hits and styles and genres. They’re both gloomy Swedes and insanely infectious disco-mongers.”

The Way Old Friends Do is not a musical however. “We’re not trying to compete with Mamma Mia,” points out Hallard. “It’s a backstage play in the vein of the Full Monty or Stepping Out – a bunch of plucky amateurs deciding to put on a show.” It’s also the first play Hallard has written.

“I thought, 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.”

Gatiss meanwhile is in the director’s chair.

“We can compare notes at the end of the evening without having to organise a special notes session,” says Gatiss pragmatically about the benefits of working with his husband. The pair very much have a shorthand, he adds. “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!”

“Look at ABBA. Romantic relationships kick-started the band, although admittedly it did all go awry subsequently,” adds Hallard.

“Yes, we’d better not follow ABBA down that line,” his husband warns.

“Ah well, if we do, we’ll just end up getting back together in 40 years’ time.”

The Way Old Friends Do is at the Lyceum, Sheffield, 7-11 March; the Lowry, Salford, 22-27 May; and York Theatre Royal, 6-10 June

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