Review by Daz Gale
After wowing audiences at Chichester Festival Theatre last year, The Unfriend has moved itself in to a West End home temporarily. With a renowned creative team involved, this had all the ingredients to be a killer show - but could it murder the competition once again or was this one show that should have stayed on holiday? The Unfriend tells the story of London couple Peter and Debbie who befriend an American lady called Elsa on holiday. When she arrives in London and stays with them at their home, they discover she may in fact be a serial killer. Can everybody make it out of this show alive?
Before I start reviewing the show itself, let's talk about the elephant in the room. Do you separate the performer from the performance when they have historically been incredibly harmful to communities very close to your heart and stands against everything you believe in? Perhaps it would be better to stay quiet or just not mention them at all? On that note, Frances Barber plays Elsa - a problematic character with terrible ethics who causes a lot of pain to people she interacts with. I imagine that can't have been too much of a stretch for her. Elsa moves herself in to Peter and Debbies home despite being unwelcome. What transpires can only be described as a TERF war.
The cast themselves deliver fantastic comedic performances with Reece Shearsmith and Amanda Abbington providing a great dynamic as the married couple whose lives are turned upside down by Elsas arrival. Their children are equally fantastic despite their reduced stage time, with Maddie Holliday as Rosie and especially Gabriel Howell as Alex creating scene-stealing moments, with the trajectory of Alex’s character an undoubted highlight. Michael Simkins gives an ironically memorable performance as the nameless neighbour, while the cast is completed by Marcus Onilude, making the most of a questionably written part. Steven Moffats writing is as razor sharp as you would expect, leading to a strong premise full of wickedly funny moments. However, the play does become slightly uneven as it progresses. The first act sets everything up perfectly in a consistently captivating and hilarious watch. However this is lost somewhat in act 2, immediately losing momentum with an overlong silent opening that, while a funny premise in itself, is something that felt more suited to a TV show
As act 2 descends into farcical territory it struggles to maintain its identity, with a shifting tone and one particularly crass seemingly never-ending sequence involving a toilet which was, perhaps fittingly, a bit crap. The inclusion of a policeman in act 2 almost feels like an afterthought and sadly fails to live up to its much superior first act.
Mark Gatiss expertly directs the action, making full use of the glorious set design by Robert Jones, intricately representing the downstairs of the house – though perhaps less detail in the downstairs bathroom was required! The use of video projections is an inspired touch with Andrzej Gouldings design and animation transforming the stage on several occasions.
The Unfriend is a pleasantly funny show that loses its way somewhat as time goes on. Though it has enough laugh out loud moments to warrant a fun night out, it is drastically inconsistent and often feels like it would translate better if it was on the screen rather than the stage, often resembling a feature length episode of a TV sitcom such as My Family. Its laugh out loud moments and direction provide a show that will give you a good night out though perhaps not one that will stay with you long after you leave the theatre.
While there is no denying the talent on that stage with some truly exceptional performances, there are equally talented people out there who are far less harmful in what they do off the stage. Perhaps something that should be considered when casting in the future so that everybody can enjoy the art that has been created.
The Unfriend plays at the Criterion Theatre until 16th April.
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Photos by Manuel Harlan