The Unfriend at the Criterion Theatre review - Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat give us a riotous bit of fun

 (Manuel Harlan)
(Manuel Harlan)

What a hoot. Amanda Abbington, Reece Shearsmith and Frances Barber excel in this uproarious, if somewhat contrived, comedy of English embarrassment by former Doctor Who and Sherlock showrunner Steven Moffat. The story of a couple too polite and uptight to ask a suspected killer to leave their home, it has the meticulous bourgeois manners and spiraling hysteria of a darker Alan Ayckbourn play.

Abbington and Shearsmith are Peter and Debbie, befriended on a cruise by Barber’s voluptuously eccentric, Trump-supporting Elsa Jean Krakowski. Think kaftan-clad Jennifer Coolidge in The White Lotus but with more gleeful calculation, and you’re there.

Shortly before Elsa inveigles herself into their London home, Debbie discovers she is the subject of a crime podcast and suspected of murdering her father, her first husband and at least four others with poison. Improbable, yes: but apparently something similar really happened to friends of Moffat’s, except it was only three alleged murders and the woman got off on a technicality.

What follows is a relentlessly snowballing orgy of cringe and discomfiture. Elsa’s arrival initially gives Peter and Debbie’s stroppy teenage son and daughter (Gabriel Howell and Maddie Holliday, mining gold from slight roles) one more reason to hate their parents. Then she begins to work a kind of unifying magic on the family – “she’s Murder Poppins” as Debbie puts it – which is almost worse.

 (Manuel Harlan)
(Manuel Harlan)

Tensions are further ratcheted up by Michael Simkins, pitch-perfect as a neighbour so dull no one can remember his name, constantly intruding to debate a collapsing garden wall. And by the arrival of a policeman who develops stomach trouble after Elsa serves him a sandwich. The action turns lavatorial and farcical in the second half.

If you surrender to the absurdity, it’s a delight. Shearsmith delivers an impeccable, physically detailed comic performance as the harried Peter but it’s Abbington who really impresses with her lightness and deft timing. I particularly loved her monologue about how she’d actually quite like to murder some of her acquaintances. “You’ve met Anthea,” she reminds Peter, as if it closes the argument.

But it’s Barber’s Elsa, a glorious grotesque, who gets the best of the show’s many killer lines. On the cruise ship she tells Peter he’s so tense he “could snap a proctologist off at the knuckle”. To Peter’s son, she inappropriately remarks that she has so many chins her body resembles “the underside of a caterpillar”. Barber’s gleeful delight in the part is palpable.

Apart from a few saggy moments, Mark Gatiss directs this Chichester Festival Theatre production with aplomb. He and Shearsmith made up half of The League of Gentlemen, he worked on Sherlock with Moffat and Abbington, and he and Barber are part of the wider Doctor Who family.

I can just about remember the days when theatre sneered at TV talent. But this love-in of starry small screen creatives fills a hole in the West End as a much-needed, riotous bit of fun.

Criterion Theatre, to April 15; buy tickets here