Ian Hallard has a vivid memory of arriving at his own 18th birthday party with a bunch of Abba singles tucked under his arm.

“It was the only way I could guarantee that the DJ would play any Abba,” he recalls. “In the mid 80s, Abba were just seen as being naff but I loved them.”

He still does. It is Ian’s enduring passion for the Swedish band which has led to The Way Old Friends Do, a new stage production which he both wrote and stars in and which has been directed by his husband Mark Gatiss and which comes to The Lowry from tomorrow.

The Way Old Friends Do is a story about two gay schoolfriends who form a role reversed Abba tribute band. and the trials and tribulations of getting their particular show on the road.

Ian wrote it while Mark was working away.

“Once I’d decided to try and write something, it was motivated by what I myself wanted to be in,” he said. “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’.”

Bury Times: Ian Hallard, Rose Shalloo,Sara Crowe and James Bradshaw) in The Way Old Friends Do                                                                      (Picture: Darren Bell)

Ian plays Peter an Abba-obsessive, who does indeed get to play Agnetha in the tribute band. But contrary to what you might expect, The Way Old Friends Do is not a musical.

Ian said: “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.”

Having said that, the show does does feature one Abba song.

“We knew we would have to get permission to use any music and the Performing Rights Society said it was very rare for Abba to ever allow any of their work to be used. I knew from the outset I wanted to keep the music to a minimum. But we we lucky that we knew someone who had Bjorn from Abba’s email. I contacted him saying I had a play which I wanted to put on which was a love letter to Abba and could we use one song and amazingly he agreed.”

Bury Times: Ian Hallard with Mark Gatiss. Darren Bell

As director, it was Mark’s role to take Ian’s work and get it ready for the stage.

“I feel very strongly that we need to be putting on stuff that will bring people back to the theatre,” said the Sherlock and League of Gentleman star. “To me it’s exactly the sort of show we need.

“It’s very upbeat and very funny and it also has the kind of melancholy of Abba at its heart which is very appealing to me. Mostly it’s just a great night out which is hopefully what appeals to people the most.”

Mark was quick to point out that it’s not just a show for Abba fans.

“I used to live near Highbury, Arsenal’s football stadium,” he said. “I have no interest in football but a friend of mine gave me a copy of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, a memoir about his passion for Arsenal.

“Even though I had no interest in Arsenal what struck me was that you could read into it your own obsessions so for me rather than it being about a football team it was about season 16 of Doctor Who. And it’s the same with The Way Old Friends Do.

“It’s about people’s passions for something that means a lot to them. There is a lovely bit in the show where there is a debate over what they would ask Abba given the chance. There has been a debate about a lyric and Peter just says ‘it would be nice to know for definite’ - that’s just such a fan thing to say.”

Bury Times: Mark Gatiss with the cast of The Way Old Friends Do. Darren Bell

The Way Old Friends Do also stars Sara Crowe, James Bradshaw, best known for his role as Max DeBryn in Endeavour, Andrew Horton who was in Netflix’s Jupiter’s Legacy, Rose Shalloo and Donna Berlin.

“I have never been in such a happy company,” said Ian, “which is testament to Mark as a director. It’s crucial as it’s a play all about the group.

“I have seen it myself that if a company is unhappy and don’t get on you can sense that from the stage. That would be disastrous for a play like this which is all about those bonds of friendship.

“Without being too cloying, it’s about people who enjoy working together and want to entertain. No matter how grim things are, if we can cheer people up that through the show that will be amazing.”

Given their relationship, has it proved difficult for Mark to direct something which Ian wrote and stars in?

“I felt a lot more comfortable handing my baby over to Mark than I would have to a complete stranger,” said Ian.

“It helps that I understand Ian’s Abba obsession,” Mark joked. “But you just have to be careful about not blurring the lines when you get home otherwise you can find yourself working all the time.

“But I genuinely believe it is something special. It is very sharp writing and all the sentiment is earned. I cry every time we get to the last scene, it makes me go.”

“It makes me cry at various points,” said Ian. “I think it’s touching rather than overly sentimental or mawkish. I hope people will be moved by it and that it’s not just me getting overly sentimental in my middle age.

“I hope they will laugh and find the characters endearing, I am in love with all of them. I think they are kind of characters audience will enjoy spending time with.”

The Way Old Friends Do, The Lowry, Salford Quays, Monday, May 22 to Saturday, May 27. Details from www.thelowry.com