The Unfriend – Review

Images Manuel Harlan

We’ve all done it. You get lumbered with a stranger while on holiday, spend the vacation indulging in a mock-friendship which, when the time comes to leave, ends with both sides promising to keep in touch.

It’s a game and the rules are that you end on a friendly note but move on. Burn the phone number, delete the email address and erase their name from social media.

Steven Moffat, more used to getting his teeth into Dracula, unravelling elementary puzzles by writing Sherlock or unlocking the secrets of time and space with Dr Who, has turned his hand to a stage show and, it turns out, he’s rather good at it.

The Unfriend, which finally got its premiere at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre last night, a full two years after Covid scuppered its original debut date, sizzles with murderous one-liners and has killer turns by its cast led by Reece Shearsmith, Amanda Abbington and Frances Barber.

Comedy is very subjective but pretty much the entire theatre erupted from the first scene and laughed non-stop for nearly two hours. 

There’s a slight plot (who needs complicated?) that harks back to the golden age of TV sitcoms, but it’s so refreshing to watch a genuinely funny show whose only aim is to make you chuckle.

The Unfriend is a comedy of manners that relies on the stereotypes surrounding loud Americans, uptight English middle classes, and…serial killers.

Moffat has written a pacy plot that bristles with superbly funny, observational dialogue, the gags-a-plenty are delivered by an outstanding cast and it’s led by first-time stage director – and Moffat’s frequent TV collaborator – Mark Gatiss.

Gatiss, of course, is an extremely talented polymath specialising in the dark side of life (and death). He brightens up Christmases with horror stories, and writes, stars and produces TV gems including Sherlock, Dracula, The League of Gentlemen, A History of Horror and The Mezzotint. 

He’s your go-to man for dark humour as is his fellow Gentleman and Room No. 9 creator Reece Shearsmith who, in The Unfriend, reveals life’s comic absurdity through the depressed, defeated and cowardly dad-two Peter who has the concentration of a goldfish.

The straight man to neurotic Peter’s hysterical outbursts is Amanda Abbington’s restrained Debbie who tries to steer the family through life’s choppy waters with a large glass of red and the stoicism of a saint.

It opens with the couple enjoying a cruise. Killjoy Peter starts the day getting his fill of misery by reading the news online before venting his fury at his deck-side companion.

On a neighbouring lounger is Elsa, a widow from Denver, with her own opinionated and controversial views.

Elsa has befriended the couple and she’s the sort of woman who is impossible to shake off, no matter how hard you try.

The cruise is almost over and both Elsa and the Brits indulge in the ritual goodbyes, we must meet agains, if you’re ever in our part of the woods etc.

Debbie and Peter can’t wait to leave their holiday friendship behind but they’re far too polite to say so.

Ever the pushy American, Elsa insists on an email address and, before you know it, she’s invited herself to stay in House No 9 (nice in-joke), in suburban Chiswick, West London.

On the eve of her arrival, into a household that boasts the must-have accessories of a Neanderthal boy who spends his time playing computer games and a precocious, self-absorbed teenage girl, Debbie rashly decides to Google their houseguest and the news isn’t good.

The couple both panic. What can they do? With a friend like this, who needs enemies? How can they politely stop Elsa coming to stay without hurting her feelings? Unfortunately they’re too late.

“There’s a lot of people online who say you’re a serial killer!” says a shaken Peter. “I know,” says Elsa offended. “It’s SO upsetting!”

But if you ignore the fact that Elsa has a chequered history, she proves rather cathartic for the family.

She even solves the problem of the interminably dull and obsessive neighbour who “is so boring he’s actually memory-proof”.

They’ve lived next door for a decade and still haven’t learnt his name.

The always tremendous Michael Simkins, is seemingly channelling Richard Briers’ Martin Bryce from Ever Decreasing Circles and it works a treat.

Frances Barber, all blonde wig and glitzy velour pants suit, is a delight as the manipulative Elsa who may, or not be Murder Poppins. Will her nannying end in disaster or result in a newly improved family dynamic?

Barber is deliciously outrageous and totally at odds with the stuffy Debbie and Peter, and all three play their parts to perfection.

Outstanding performances, superb writing, and brilliantly helmed by Mr Gatiss. I think they all have a future in comedy, so long as they steer clear of the cyanide sandwiches and arsenic coffee……

The Unfriend runs in the Minerva Theatre until July 9 but really should be picked up by the West End. Any takers?

The Unfriend
  • The Unfriend
5

Summary

Reece Shearsmith, Frances Barber & Amanda Abbington are outstanding in Steven Moffat’s superb comedy, The Unfriend, at Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva stage.

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