The Unfriend review: Steven Moffat’s debut play is smug and sitcom-ish

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Amanda Abbington, Reece Shearsmith and Frances Barber in ‘The Unfriend' (Manuel Harlan)
Amanda Abbington, Reece Shearsmith and Frances Barber in ‘The Unfriend' (Manuel Harlan)

The Unfriend has a great premise… for a sitcom. It also has a prestige TV cast to match, with Amanda Abbington, Reece Shearsmith and Frances Barber all assembled to tell the story of a middle-class couple who accidentally invite a serial killer into their home. But this isn’t a sitcom. It’s the debut play from Sherlock creator and former Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat, directed by Mark Gatiss, and the story gets bogged down by writing that’s inconsistent in quality.

Middle class couple Peter (Shearsmith) and Debbie (Abbington) are soaking up the sun on a cruise when they meet Elsa Jean Krakowski (Barber), a loud, charming American. She’s decidedly un-PC and rattles off fat jokes while spouting about the dangers of vaccines, but is – we’re told – a laugh. That is, until Elsa invites herself to their Chiswick home and one perfunctory google reveals that Elsa is a suspect in not one, but six murders – including her husband. “She’s a murderer and we’re too embarrassed to bring it up,” says Debbie, with an exasperated cry.

This revelation is the crux of Moffat’s comedy, which is less about murder than British awkwardness. In one scene, we see Peter and Debbie sternly tell Elsa what they’ve learnt and ask her to leave, only to then realise it was a dream sequence. The reality, unsurprisingly, is far more pathetic. Shearsmith is given most of the funny lines, while Abbington is the naturalistic straight man doing Proper Acting. But her part feels underwritten and leaves her resorting to being the finger-wagging fun sponge.

Barber, meanwhile, is a tremendous physical comedian, wailing in pain and shrieking with laughter. Your eyes are drawn to her from the moment she arrives, baring her feet and swaggering around in a velour tracksuit with the words “choose life” encrusted on the back in diamante.

Frances Barber as Elsa (Manuel Harlan)
Frances Barber as Elsa (Manuel Harlan)

Where The Unfriend is let down is in its script. There’s an icky smugness to the writing; every genuinely funny line undercut by unbearable comments of “she’s Murder Poppins!” and “Who likes flowers? They’re just vegetables for looking at”. When the action begins to lag, Moffat resorts to long stretches of toilet humour and political commentary. Both are clearly attempts to elicit laughs, but where the former really works (Marcus Onilude stealing the show as a police officer emptying his bowels in their downstairsbathroom), the latter feels tepid and obvious.

There are also gaping holes in the plot that are simply never explained. Peter and Debbie are posited as the average couple, yet there’s no attempt to explain how this Observer-reading, middle-class pair manage to take frequent month-long cruise trips with two teenage kids at home.

It’s a shame, because Moffat’s play has potential. As Peter and Debbie watch pantomime villain Elsa turn their teenage kids from apathetic and angry to sweet and hard-working, they lament: “She’s the killer who came to stay and every day she’s improving our lives.” In the final moments, there’s a genuinely good twist. While I won’t spoil, it almost makes it worth it. But not quite.

‘The Unfriend’ runs at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester until 9 July

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