The Unfriend

The need to willingly suspend disbelief in order to fully enter into the spirit of a play is sometimes an essential requirement if the potential for enjoyment is not to be lost altogether. In those circumstances, almost inevitably the ability to mentally abandon the desire for credibility over two acts ebbs and flow. Such is the case with Steven Moffat’s The Unfriend at the Criterion Theatre.

A fun, if flawed, comedy.

What saves the day for this sitting-room comedy are the striking performances given by all members of the cast under the pacey direction of Mark Gattiss, once we are past the relaxed opening of conversations from sun-loungers on the deck of the cruise ship. This scene serves only as an introductory plot-setter in which the very Home-Counties Peter (Reece Shearsmith) and Debbie (Amanda Abbington), encounter Elsa Jean Krakowski (Frances Barber), the loudly eccentric, gushing elderly extravert from Denver, Colorado. In these last hours before the final disembarkation they politely promise to stay in touch, as people often do in such relaxed moments; usually in the hope and belief that nothing will come of it. This foolish gesture comes back to haunt them, however. Elsa is not one to miss an opportunity.

Designer Robert Jones’ detailed suburban house is the setting for the rest of the play. Within these walls middle-class virtues abound. For our couple, being polite, doing the right thing, behaving with decency, demonstrating good manners and not causing offence are the tenets of their existence. All of which are put to the test when Elsa turns up on their doorstep. They had arranged for her to visit, but this was not the appointed time and an implausible set of circumstances in a far-fetched story are glossed over as her presence is accepted. She soon meets the two teenage children. Those are the offspring who were left behind in the house by themselves when their parents took to the high seas for a month. Likely? No; despite their clearly being strained relations between them. Elsa adores them and they fall for her. Miraculously and with no evidence for how a change of heart occurred, by Act II the kids are suddenly enamoured of their parents and devoted to them all thanks to Elsa’s unwitnessed influence.

These issues are minor, however compared to the alleged truth about Elsa that a Google search reveals. It seems that although never having faced trial and therefore unconvicted, there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that she is a serial murderer; her poisoning antics and the mysterious deaths of family members being common knowledge back home. Of course, had the law taken its course and the local police done their job we wouldn’t have a play, so it’s easily glossed over. If her hosts lived in the real world they would also kick her out immediately in order to protect themselves, their children and the neighbours. That however, would require them to actually confront her with the evidence; an act they deem too rude, impolite and inhospitable. Hence they continue to tolerate her presence and weave a tangled web of stories trying to explain their impossible position.

If the plot is lacking the performances are not. Barber boldly and loudly dominates every scene in which she appears, Witty, throw-away lines pepper her tale as she increasingly takes over control of the house. Shearsmith and Abbington maintain a level of fraught panic packed with humour as they lurch from one episode to another in dealing with the situation they have created. Adding to their woes, Michael Simkins as The Neighbour as his own moments of delivering mirth as he obsesses about the video he has taken revealing problems with the garden wall. Gabriel Howell is an absolute joy as the son, Alex, stealing numerous moments with withering looks and spot-on timing, while Maddie Holliday as daughter, Rosie, exudes an air of comic exasperation when confronted with the behaviour of her parents. In contrast there is the quite unnecessary inclusion of PC Junkin in the proceedings, admirably played by Marcus Onilude, who draws the short straw of being the focus of a highly distasteful lavatorial scene which could be done without.

A groan-worthy ending seems to fit the bill for what amounts to a fun, if flawed, comedy.

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The Blurb

Following its acclaimed sold-out run at Chichester Festival Theatre, prepare to welcome The Unfriend to the West End for a strictly limited run at the Criterion Theatre.

This riotous dark comedy from writer Steven Moffat and director Mark Gatiss, the award-winning team behind BBC’s Sherlock, stars an uproarious cast including Reece Shearsmith (Inside No. 9), Amanda Abbington (Sherlock) and Frances Barber (Silk). While on holiday Peter and Debbie befriend Elsa: a lusty, Trump-loving widow from Denver, USA. She’s less than woke but kind of wonderful. They agree to stay in touch - because no one ever really does, do they?

When Elsa invites herself to stay a few months later, they decide to look her up online. Too late, they learn the truth about Elsa Jean Krakowski. Deadly danger has just boarded a flight to London!

What began as a casual holiday friendship is now a threat to the lives of their children. Peter and Debbie now face the ultimate challenge of the modern world - how do you protect all that you love from mortal peril without seeming a bit impolite? Because guess who’s coming… to MURDER.

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