17 January 2023
THE UNFRIEND (The Criterion Theatre) Review
It’s difficult to review this one without spoilers, but I’ll give it a go. A prim and proper middle-aged English couple embark on a cruise where they meet a certain Elsa Jean–a larger-than-life youthful pensioner from Denver, USA, who runs her mouth as if her life depended on it and ultimately invites herself over to stay with the aforementioned Peter and Debbie in London. It’s a clever setup, and Steven Moffat (of the Dr. Who fame) who wrote the script said in some interview that it is based on a story that actually happened to/with some friends of his.
It was easy to get caught up in the story and the perceived importance of manners at first whilst Elsa goes from a stranger they know nothing about to someone who, according to the internet anyway, may or may not have been involved in some criminal activity, albeit remained unprosecuted due to lack of evidence. When the couple are too embarrassed to rescind their invitation, and Debbie says, “We are dying of manners”, I genuinely thought it was going to be the start of a 2-hour stretch of hearty belly laughs.
Alas, this wasn’t meant to be. I am not the target audience for this… The play tries to position itself as a farce, but falls way short of the cleverness it takes to be one. There is a [painfully] long scene about flushing a toilet, with Peter heading into the bathroom with a white brush in hand and emerging with a brown one instead. I thought, “bet he’s going to shake it in the air”, which he duly did, “splattering” it over fellow actors…. There is a scene where the couple’s teenage son is full of exasperation and angst, which was supposed to be funny somehow… The dialog is bland, and the one-liners don’t land.
The text is also not helped by being full of holes. How does a couple with 2 teenagers go on a cruise for a month and leave the kids behind? There is Peter’s mother, who is elderly and lives far away, so that’s not it… The kids get healthier and more polite under Elsa’s influence. How does she do it? Peter and Debbie prep for what they would say to Elsa to ask her to cut her stay short, so why can’t they go through with it? As I said, there were plenty of people in the audience constantly laughing, but I thought it was a bit trashy. I can’t imagine how this play would’ve been staged at a proper theatre, let alone in the West End, if it didn’t have Steven Moffat’s name attached to it.
Reece Shearsmith was suitably funny as Peter. I thought if he could stick to his facial expressions and somehow speak less, it would’ve been so much better. Amanda Abbington as Debbie was good, but either she wasn’t mic’d properly (if any of them were) or was not projecting as well as the others. I was sat in the back of the stalls, and the whole cruise scene was nothing but mumbling. Her character did seem to be a bit swallowed up by the others (which is not dissimilar to her character in The Son). Frances Barber as Elsa is brilliantly cast. She overacts by a country mile, but I reckon that’s the only thing that makes Elsa sympathetic. Mark Gatiss’ direction tries hard to make up for the shortcomings of the texts, but there are limits o what he could do.
If you want some cheesy laughs without investing too much into the story, it’s definitely worth seeing. But if you want some cleverness to go with your humour, there’s none of that here. It’s not a bad play, but it is definitely not great. The single best line is one I can’t share so not to ruin the big reveal. When Debbie says, of Elsa, “She is ****** Poppins”, I was in stitches, as was the rest of the audience. But that was one of a handful of joyful moments instead of what should’ve been an end-to-end stretch of them.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: £2.