'The Unfriend' review — Steven Moffat's debut play is an irresistible comic thriller

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

The title of Steven Moffat’s play makes a noun out of one of Facebook’s less delightful actions and it also represents a genuine theatrical rarity, especially these days: a comic thriller, and a truly funny one at that.

The result widens the remit of superstar TV scribe Moffat (Sherlock, Doctor Who) to enable him to add the stage to his CV in a transfer from Chichester that includes the playwright’s wife, Sue Vertue, amongst the producers. The creatives represent a cross-section of TV names long-steeped in theatre – director Mark Gatiss, leading man Reece Shearsmith – who overlap with Moffat’s previous credits, Sherlock especially, which must have made for some very jolly rehearsals indeed.

His play is a cunning construct which you could resist on the grounds of plausibility but that nonetheless gets under the skin. I admit to chafing at the opening scene, gorgeously designed by Robert Jones though it is, which finds Frances Barber wielding an American accent so OTT that it’s like the aural equivalent of an axe.

But by the time events move from a cruise ship to the domestic setting back in England that Barber’s blowsy American looks set to imperil, I was on board most of the rest of the way, and the shared brio amongst the cast reaches across the footlights as well.

Barber plays a throaty Trump supporter and election denier from Colorado who likes to muscle her way into people’s lives. Barely has she met a quiescent English couple, Peter (Shearsmith) and Debbie (Amanda Abbington), before she has imprinted herself upon them as a friend, going so far as to make contact live via Facebook — yes, that! — to announce that she, and a voluminous amount of luggage, are in fact ready and waiting for entry outside the pair’s front door.

As if that weren’t enough, a quick Google search reveals Elsa’s murderous past, which needless to say makes her English hosts more than a little skittish: might they be next for the serial killer chop, they rightly wonder as their alarm intensifies, though not sufficiently so for either spouse to muster the stamina to force Elsa from their home. English social embarrassment is seen to exert its vicelike grip. (I kept wondering why they don’t just snatch her keys away, but perhaps that’s too easy.)

The plot has a whiff of Alan Ayckbourn and hearkens back to a now-vanished time where the sheer mechanics of narrative construction were a pleasure in and of themselves.

The Unfriend keeps you guessing and chuckling throughout. Cleverly subverting expectation, Elsa far from spreading fear through the familial ranks ends up endearing herself to the couple’s teenage children, who feel seen by this new arrival in their midst in a way their parents have never quite managed: “Murder Poppins”, indeed, becomes Elsa’s perhaps not-so-facetious moniker.

And there’s terrific use made of a nosy parker neighbour so boring that no one can ever remember his name. Popping in to query ever so passive-aggressively the couple’s drinking habits, Michael Simkins delivers a comic master class, nowhere more so than in a final scene that asks a lot – though to say more would give the game away.

There are hints of darker themes afoot, as the play toys with notions of fake news and disinformation, alongside the seductive powers of potential savagery – a phenomenon all too prevalent in the political world, and elsewhere, today. Are facts even relevant, Elsa asks the assemblage, not long after she has suggested the potential for murder within all of us: a thought that finds direct precedent in the closing sequence of Sweeney Todd.

A gleeful enigma wrapped in finery or leisure wear as required, Barber is clearly having fabulous fun with one of those roles that might well become iconic over time, rather like the kneecapping Annie Wilkes in Misery.

Playing the children who fall under Elsa’s sway, Maddie Holliday and Gabriel Howell shift from insolence to affection with ease, and Marcus Onilude, as a copper in search of fresh milk (good luck with that!), enlivens the second act with a long scene involving excrement that itself seems like a throwback to gross-out stage humour of old: the son Alex’s need constantly to fart is cut from the same malodorous cloth.

Still, with Shearsmith proving himself once again a peerless physical comedian, The Unfriend keeps you mirthfully on edge up to the final curtain. I haven’t checked out this show’s Facebook page but I would imagine it contains more than its share of likes.

The Unfriend is at the Criterion Theatre through 16 April. Book The Unfriend tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Amanda Abbington as Debbie, Frances Barber as Elsa, Reece Shearsmith as Peter (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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