When Peter (Reece Shearsmith) and Debbie (Amanda Abbington) meet the terrifyingly outgoing Elsa (Frances Barber) on holiday, they must do everything in their power to stop themselves from inviting her to stay.
Steven Moffat doesn’t like saying no to people. That’s the main takeaway from the former Doctor Who showrunner’s West End debut, which has transferred to the Criterion following an acclaimed run at the Chichester Festival Theatre. Inspired by a story told to him second-hand on a French patio, there’s still something wickedly personal about The Unfriend. Perhaps Moffat boasts a terribly incisive view into the psyche of your average middle-class British folk, or perhaps this is just how he is himself. Either way, the result (a farcical run-around on the dangers of politeness) is painfully universal and hilariously funny to boot.
As the topic suggests, The Unfriend is unreservedly and apologetically British, both in its form and our national inability to say no to people. While the very online-sounding title might suggest something a little more ‘of the moment,’ the end product is a blissfully traditional farce. The odd nod to modern politics and popular culture aside, the story is far more concerned with those evergreen staples of daily life: neighbourly disagreements over shared walls, dysfunctional families, and how to ask a murderer to get out of your house if they wouldn’t mind.
It’s here that Moffat’s script really sparkles. The Unfriend’s approach to comedy is deceptively difficult to pull off, but it comes good with a lightning-rod adherence to its anxiety-ridden conceit, effortlessly pulling material out of the hat from start to finish. The blend of the absurd with the comfortingly familiar results in a kind of quality comic escapism that feels all too rare on the West End today. And Gatiss’ direction proves once again why the Sherlock-creators make such a formidable pair on TV – the staging blends seamlessly with the words on the page, so you’d be sure the same brain had conceived them both.
Turning attention to the stage, the cast is as phenomenal here as the rave Chichester reviews suggest. Reece Shearsmith is clearly having a whale of a time returning to his live-comedy roots; Amanda Abbington plays an exasperated middle-class mum to perfection; and the supporting cast of the couple’s volatile offspring (Gabriel Howell and Maddie Holliday) and passive-aggressive neighbour (Michael Simkins) adopt their broader-than-life characters with aplomb. It speaks volumes to the cast’s talent that they manage to avoid being overshadowed by Frances Barber’s deliciously observed Elsa, who would absolutely steal the show were her co-stars not so damn funny themselves.
There’s such a comfort to be had in The Unfriend that a few slightly clunky stage transitions (which feel oddly retro in a normally butter-smooth West End theatre) and a lack of genuine surprises as far as the plot is concerned really don’t matter at all. Though the suburban house setting is one we’re all very familiar with, watching it being built piece by piece is nothing short of masterful. A clinically well-executed interpretation of a new comic classic, if this jump-starts Steven Moffat’s new career as a playwright, I’d love to see more. And, unlike Peter and Debbie, I really mean it.