'The Unfriend' review – Lee Mack is in his element in Steven Moffat's comedy of manners
Read our review of The Unfriend, starring Lee Mack and Sarah Alexander and written by Steven Moffat, now in performances at Wyndham's Theatre until 9 March.
It should come as no surprise that Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s latest creative venture is a rip-roaring success. Their shared TV credits include an impressive list of some of the BBC’s top-rated series such as Doctor Who, Sherlock, and Dracula, yet The Unfriend marks the duo’s first theatrical outing together, with Gatiss making his directorial debut and Moffat writing his first play. The end result is an excruciating watch – but for all the right reasons.
The comedy opened at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2022, and the play’s star has continued to rise since then, with a first West End run at the Criterion at the beginning of 2023 and, now, a second at Wyndham’s Theatre only a year later. The new draw? The arrival of comedian Lee Mack as the play’s groaning, middle-aged suburbanite Peter who, along with his wife Debbie (Sarah Alexander), befriends brash American Elsa (Frances Barber) on a cruise and struggles to leave the friendship on the ship due to a crippling British inability to be impolite. When Elsa shows up at their door, and a Google search reveals she has a dark past in which she may be responsible for the murder of her family members, a ridiculous comedy of manners ensues.
Gatiss’s production, which feels like a cross between a play and a sitcom, is perfect for Mack’s brand of comedy. Best known for game show Would I Lie to You? and the long-running series Not Going Out, Mack is in his element satirising uptight, middle-class Brit Peter. He is a bundle of nervous energy, wringing his hands, shifting his weight and shuffling his feet almost constantly. Mack even makes a brilliant mime, wildly gesticulating during one horrendously embarrassing scene entirely focused on toilet humour.
Barber, reprising her role as the Trump-supporting Covid-denier Elsa, also impresses, stealing the show’s first half. Creedence Clearwater Revival fans will recognise their song "Bad Moon Rising," which also appears in the film An American Werewolf in London. It isn’t a stretch to say she brings some necessary bite to the play as the Carole Baskin-esque American stirring up Peter and Debbie’s suburban street. Barber delivers every line with relish, worming her way out of accusations with vague and misleading answers and a swish of her kaftan. She’s also vital for cutting through the British awkwardness, directly calling out Peter and Debbie’s maddening neighbour: “You’re a tiny bit passive aggressive, aren’t you?”
The characters are constantly overstepping, ignoring, and enforcing boundaries, and designer Robert Jones visually exaggerates this in Peter and Debbie’s home. At first glance, it is a cosy house on a safe street, filled with plush, neutral furnishings, baby pictures on the walls, and even a “Think Happy” sign in the kitchen. However, projections of other red-brick homes loom large over the set, crowding in to create a sense of claustrophobia.
The pace lags slightly after the revelation about Elsa and her surprise appearance at Peter and Debbie’s home, but Alexander and Mack return after the interval with renewed vigour.
Some of the toilet humour also goes on a little too long – how many times do we need to hear about Peter and Debbie’s son Alex’s farts? – but this can be forgiven in such an accomplished production. After all, if we’re not careful, manners will be the death of us.
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Photo credit: Lee Mack and Sarah Alexander in The Unfriend. (Photo courtesy of production)
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