Criterion Theatre – until 16 April 2023
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Steven Moffat’s hilarious new comedy of manners has killer jokes and a cast to die for. Based on an incident that actually happened to his friend, Moffat has taken a ridiculous situation and amped the cringe factor up to 11.
Uptight middle class couple Peter (Reece Shearsmith) and Debbie (Amanda Abbington) meet the gregarious American Elsa (Frances Barber) on a cruise, and begrudgingly end up giving her their contact details, expecting her to do what all decent holiday acquaintances do – promise to keep in touch but never, ever make contact again. They haven’t reckoned with the force of nature that is Elsa, and she arranges to come and stay with them. Belatedly worrying about who exactly they are welcoming into their home, Debbie googles Elsa and discovers that she has probably murdered 6 people, but there is lack of evidence to prosecute. However, as it is too late to “unfriend” Elsa on Facebook, Elsa arrives and the couple are too polite to confront her, and their feeble attempts to broach the subject end effectively when they don’t want to upset her. Elsa’s presence in the house elicits a remarkable transformation in their two teenage children. The couple’s relationship with their children is slightly bizarre – this is a man who has forbidden his son from farting downstairs, instead banishing him to a less public area. Elsa is soon playing computer games with Alex (Gabriel Howell), and encouraging him to leave the house and exercise, while Rosie (Maddie Holliday) stops prowling around eavesdropping and begins to chat happily with her parents. “She’s Murder Poppins!”
The laughs come fast and regularly, with Barber chewing the scenery as the brash and uninhibited American and Shearsmith brilliantly squirming as he must deal with increasingly embarrassing and uncomfortable situations. The second act scene where he is trying to ascertain whether a policeman has been poisoned by Elsa is a masterclass in physical comedy as Shearsmith squirms and stutters through the excruciating situation. Abbington has a less showy role, but is wonderful as the equally uptight Debbie. “It’s been 6 days and no murders” says Peter at one stage. The couple’s almost pathological avoidance of embarrassment and conflict (except with their children) allows Elsa to settle in and get to know the neighbour (Michael Simkins nailing the passive aggressive bore) before she finally moves on after Debbie finally speaks her mind, but not without leaving an unusual parting gift. The comedy of manners is a delight and asks light-hearted questions about the emotional intelligence of traditional middle-class manners.
This isn’t a ground-breaking comedy, and has the comfortable feel of the farces of the 70s and 80s, but with a contemporary sharpness and wit. Moffat knows how to tell a story, and director Mark Gatiss knows how to sell a story. The Unfriend is fast, funny and full of cracking one liners.