The Unfriend review by Ryan Beardsley

The Criterion Theatre beckons amid tangible buzz for the debut play by multi-Bafta-winning Steven Moffat, and if that’s not enough it’s directed by National Treasure in waiting, Mark Gatiss. What could possibly go wrong? As it happens not a lot, but perhaps that’s part of the problem…

Transferring after a sell out run in Chichester, The UnFriend follows Peter (Reece Shearsmith) and Debbie (Amanda Abbington), a middle-class, middle-aged couple who commit the common mistake of making a friend on holiday. Enter Frances Barber as Elsa Jean Krakowski, a brash cliche of what the English might imagine as the worst kind of American, wasting no time in inviting herself to stay with Peter and Debbie in London. Not is all as it seems though as on the eve of her visit, they discover via YouTube that she’s an assumed multiple murderer.

I must admit I had to stifle a groan less than a minute in when the first few gags were aimed at that easiest of targets, Donald Trump. Surely such ‘humour’ has taken the place of sarcasm as the lowest form of wit? However, it was onward and upwards after the brief prologue as we moved from the holiday to the family home and an impressive staging which was part sitcom, part game show.

The show moves at a brisk pace as Elsa descends on the suburban family unit and all hell breaks loose, with the gags coming thick and fast, some hitting the mark, others hanging in the air a little like one of teenage son Alex’s notorious instances of flatulence.

As for the cast, the apparently ageless Reece Shearsmith is reliably excellent, whilst also defying the ageing process. His comic timing and ability to raise a laugh with only a facial expression or the overemphasised pronunciation of a word is never lost on me or the audience at large, and his restrained hysterics during the show’s most farcical moment, involving the bowel movement of a visiting police constable is the, without doubt, the highlight of the night

Frances Barber as The UnFriend of the title is clearly having a ball in a role that is actually more difficult than one might assume. As mentioned above, Elsa is made up of a tranche of cliches but Barber never allows the performance to slip into caricature, every one-liner delivered with just a hint of a wink to the front row. It would be easy for an actress in this role to overdo it, but Barber walks the tightrope skillfully, balancing just on the right side of irritating Peter and Debbie, but never the audience.

Threatening to steal the show in every appearance is the unassuming, passive-aggressive neighbour played with superb restraint and comic timing by Michael Simkins, nabbing some of the best lines throughout, perfectly capturing a character so boring that you couldn’t remember his name if you lived next door to him for 10 years.

As for any subtext or overarching themes, I’m still scratching my head just a little. Was it that parents can be self-involved and should spend more time with their children? Perhaps not to  judge a book by its cover? (I mean she was a murderer but the kids loved her…) I think I’ve settled on the idea that Elsa’s presence in the family home and Peter and Debbie’s eventual acceptance of it represents how we are all growing accustomed to this ever more anarchic and crazy world we live in, but perhaps I’m reaching.

So on the whole, what’s my problem? I don’t really have one as such, I enjoyed the performance, had a number of laughs and I would definitely recommend it. I think because I’m such a big fan of Shearsmith and Gatiss, particularly their darker work such as Inside No 9 and The League of Gentlemen, I was expecting, nay hoping for something a little more dangerous. 

We even got a slight tease of the aforementioned when a glimpse at the 9 on the front door was offered, but alas things did not go in that direction, I can’t help but think things would have been all the more interesting if it had…

You can find more information on dates and tickets here.

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