Review: The Unfriend at the Criterion Theatre ★★★★

Following its sold-out run at Chichester Festival Theatre, The Unfriend transferred this week to the West End’s Criterion Theatre.

This hilarious comedy is from the brilliant trinity that is writer Steven Moffat and director Mark Gatiss, the team behind BBC’s Sherlock, and star of stage and small screen Reece Shearsmith (Inside No. 9) in the role of Peter. Other stand out performances in this stellar cast are Amanda Abbington (Sherlock) as Peter’s wife Debbie, and Frances Barber (Silk) as brash American Elsa Jean Krakowski.

The play begins onboard a cruise, where middle aged, middle class British couple Peter and Debbie befriend Elsa: a loud, if somewhat infectious, Trump-loving widow from Denver, USA. They politely agree to stay in touch – exchanging email addresses without any real intention of seeing Elsa ever again. When are they ever going to be in Denver?

However, out of the blue a few months later, Elsa invites herself to stay in Peter and Debbie’s “tiny” (according to Elsa!) suburban home. In advance of her arrival, Peter and Debbie decide to glean a little more detail about their incoming houseguest by visiting Google. Moments before a knock at the front door, they learn that Elsa Jean Krakowski is a wanted serial murderer in America, causing Peter to wish aloud for an immediately effective Facebook “unfriend” button. Panic ensues as the couple struggle with their overwhelming urge to remain polite and not to offend their guest, whilst fearing for their lives and those of their “impressionable” teen children.

Amanda Abbington, Frances Barber, Reece Shearsmith – Photo by Manuel Harlan

The play effortless romps along with great physicality, underpinned by a tight script and packed with some stand out one-liners. Well-crafted characters, down to a next door neighbour played convincingly by Michael Simkins, are real and relatable. The teen offspring of Peter and Debbie unwittingly become close to Elsa during her week-long stay. Alex, played by Gabriel Howell, beautifully captures the uniform of ennui worn by many a mid-teen. Rosie (Maddie Holliday), their daughter, is convincing in her earnest concern and outrage about being kept out of the loop of family issues.

Despite their horror at the idea of welcoming a potential lethal weapon into their home, Peter and Debbie are forced to acknowledge the changes for the better that Elsa appears to have triggered. Lethargic Alex undergoes a transformation from moody teen to motivated, cycling, jogging and hugging loving son and brother. Even Peter is now voluntarily calling his 92-year-old Mum for a chat. Elsa is exuberant, brash but ultimately rather likeable.

As the play progresses into the week of Elsa’s stay, the audience, alongside Peter and Debbie, are left wondering if it’s really possible that Elsa could have committed multiple murders. Her mere presence, and family-therapy style gems of wisdom, ultimately bring the family closer together. However, be under no illusion, this is a black comedy with laser sharp one-liners. When noticing the systematic improvements Elsa is making to their family life, Debbie refers to Elsa as “Murder Poppins” causing an instantaneous eruption of laughter from the audience.

Reece Shearsmith, Frances Barber, Amanda Abbington – photo by Manuel Harlan

Overall, the standout performance is from Reece Shearsmith. His cringe-worthy awkwardness and compelling urge not to offend is embodied in both his side-splitting facial expressions and whole-body demeanour.

Well observed, capturing both the mundanity of suburban family life and the painfully polite manners of typical middle-class Brits – this is very funny theatre.

The Unfriend is at the Criterion Theatre until 16 April 2023.


Review by Louise Benham

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📷 Main photo: Reece Shearsmith & Amanda Abbington - photo by Manuel Harlan

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