The Unfriend

Steven Moffat
Playful Productions, Chichester Festival Theatre, Eric Kuhn, Karl Sydow and Sue Vertue/Hartswood Films and Sayers and Sayers Productions
Wyndham's Theatre, London

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Lee Mack as Peter and Sarah Alexander as Debbie Credit: Manuel Harlan
Lee Mack as Peter, Frances Barber as Elsa and Sarah Alexander as Debbie Credit: Manuel Harlan
Sarah Alexander as Debbie, Frances Barber as Elsa and Lee Mack as Peter Credit: Manuel Harlan

Steven Moffat’s mildly amusing, highly conventional situation comedy The Unfriend, with its broad, cartoonish characters and improbable storyline, is reminiscent of the 1970s Carry On films, even though it tries to flavour this with contemporary words and references.

It opens on the deck of a cruise ship, where Peter is trying to start his morning in his preferred way of getting angry at stuff he is reading in The Guardian. He is less keen on chatting to Elsa Jean Krakowski, the American passenger, sitting beside him. Still, he is irritated enough by a news item about Trump to show her a picture of the politician. She responds with the words, “I’d do him.”

It turns out she is a Trump supporter, who quickly lets Peter know that the politician only lost the last election “because of fraud and people voting against him.” Sociable, she invites Peter and his partner Debbie (Sarah Alexander) to visit her when they are in Denver and gets them to give her their e-mail address.

The following scene, sometime later, has them back in their suburban UK home, where they are worrying about an impending visit from Elsa. Having checked the woman they didn’t like online, they discovered she had probably murdered five or six people in the US by poisoning their food.

Nevertheless, they let her stay on the basis they would “keep it light, keep it chilled, keep her away from food preparation.”

Much to their surprise, she has such a positive effect on their daughter Rosie (Maddie Holliday) and their son Alex (Jem Matthews) that Debbie says “she’s Murder Poppins”.

Much of the humour of the show relies on the social embarrassment of Peter, played brilliantly by Lee Mack, who contorts his body awkwardly in every scene, whether he is in conversation with Elsa or being visited by a neighbour (Nick Sampson) whom he finds so impossibly boring, he cannot understand or remember anything he has said.

Frances Barber’s impressive performance as Elsa switches consistently between hints of the danger she poses to seeming little more than a harmless eccentric. Even when she asks, “is it possible to judge twenty years of marriage by one murder," it is not taken as an admission of guilt.

Many of the audience laughed at this well-performed, fast-moving show. Even those who didn’t laugh seemed to smile. It rolls along amiably in a predictable way. The second half does include a far-fetched, overlong scene in which Peter tries to get a policeman (Muzz Khan) to let him see what he has done in the toilet. But no one seemed to mind.

This isn’t a show with any claims to substance, character development or insight on the world. It is simply a light, frothy, undemanding slice of West End escapism.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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