Review: THE UNFRIEND, Criterion Theatre

No murder please, we're English!

By: Jan. 20, 2023
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Review: THE UNFRIEND, Criterion Theatre
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The Unfriend

Talk about killing them with kindness. Peter and Debbie's comfortably dysfunctional middle-class lives are turned upside down by the almost unannounced arrival of "Elsa Jean Krakowski", as a ferociously funny Frances Barber declares to the rafters. The overbearing, oversharing American diva has a secret almost as big as her mouth. She is a serial killer, or at least is suspected to be one.

But do not be mistaken, she is not of the creepy Jeffrey Dahmer variety of psychopath. Clad in a Betty White-inspired velour tracksuit and Gucci scarf, she is flamboyant, outspoken, and if you will pardon the pun, dead funny. As Reece Shearsmith's Peter and Amanda Abbington's Debbie jitter and squabble when the boundaries of etiquette are pushed to the absurd, Elsa surreptitiously becomes part of the family even winning over the family's hormonal children. A murderous Nanny McPhee or Nanny Mc-killing-spree perhaps.

Premiering at the Chichester Theatre Festival last year, the transfer of Steven Moffat's The Unfriend to the Criterion Theatre will no doubt be a successful one. Its sardonic take on social protocol is a different world from that which Moffat is used to writing, he counts cultural big hitters like Dr Who and Sherlock under his belt, but he feels entirely at home on a West End stage.

That might be because The Unfriend stands on the shoulders of other satirists and playwrights. There is a detectable cultural inheritance from Wilde and Bernard Shaw to modern day sitcoms. Whilst the latter's stylistic silliness may overpower at times and pack a few predictable punchlines, The Unfriend is more multifaceted than it may first seem, as much as it is a comedy of manners it is also a comedy of menace.

Elsa poses a foreboding threat to Peter, Debbie, and the unspoken social order that structures their household. There are curious echoes of Pinter's The Caretaker: a stranger with an uncertain past arriving unannounced only to slowly invade a household, colonising the space with power plays and language games. So much of The Unfriend's delicately observed comic awkwardness bleeds from linguistic self-censorship. Characters refuse to say what they really think in fear of committing a faux pas. Instead they communicate in double meanings, passive aggressive slights, and brutal silences naively expecting to be understood.

Whilst this hypothesis may be slightly imaginative, Pinter plays are concerned with how we use language to say and not say what we mean. That too is the target of The Unfriend; our inability as genteel and refined Brits to never speak our mind even when it comes at the absurd opportunity cost of welcoming a murderer into your a cosy John Lewis designed living room.

Director Mark Gatiss plays gleefully into the shifting power dynamics. From the moment she arrives, Barber's gloriously ostentatious Elsa is in total control both physically and metaphorically of Peter and Debbie. They are wriggling worms under her boot. Shearsmith as Peter is particularly adept at capturing the idiosyncrasies of an awkward dad. There is something a bit Matt Hancock about him in the way he squirms frantically, only to be put in place by his long-suffering judicious wife.

Even the sound design seems to invoke Pinter. Sound Designer Ella Wahlström draws out banal noises turning them into looming threats. The elongated drone of a car arriving in the driveway is no longer ubiquitous, it's danger knocking at the door. You have no choice but to welcome it in.

The Unfriend plays at the Criterion Theatre until 16 April

Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan