Review: THE UNFRIEND, Wyndham's Theatre

The comedy of embarrassment returns, but wastes much of its talents on a script that gets its share of laughs but never quite adds up

By: Jan. 11, 2024
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Review: THE UNFRIEND, Wyndham's Theatre
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The UnfriendIf “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”, then the same advice might be taken about cruise ships. But what would comedy do without that venue for transgression, the salty sea air energising the er… cruisers, the forced proximity, the sunblock and bikinis adding to the heady mix? 

I’m sure it would carry on regardless, but here we are with The Unfriend steaming back into the West End for a second time after its 2022 opening at Chichester, this time adding Lee Mack on stage to the name recognition afforded by Sherlock’s Steven Moffat as writer and Mark Gatiss as director. Unsurprisingly, the play has a strong television vibe running through it - one could easily imagine it as an early 90s one hour pilot for a six part series. On stage in 2024, in a brisk couple of hours including an interval, it doesn’t sink exactly, but there are times when it’s struggling to stay afloat.     

The Unfriend

On a big ship, Peter and Debbie, British, suburban, middle-aged and middle-class, meet Elsa, American, Midwestern and older. She is contrarian, but also bubbly and undoubtedly sharper than she lets on, but she’s also bored and, with no filter, there’s always the whiff of danger in the air. All of which is fine - the ship will soon dock, the licence to be naughty revoking itself and Peter and Debbie will go home to their mardy teens and socially awkward neighbour.

They do, but in the first of rather too many incidents that stretch credulity, they agree to host Elsa for a week on her visit to England. They (but not their kids - really?) google their house guest and find unwelcome information online - the twice-widowed American may be so described less by chance and more by design.

Comedy is theatrical alchemy more than most genres and what some will perceive as gold, others will merely see the same base metal. That makes accounting for the subjective, never easy of course, even trickier in reviews of plays like. But, as John Cleese stressed when describing the writing of Fawlty Towers, comedy’s internal consistency is crucial - if we don’t believe in the characters and, consequently, buy into their motivations for their foolish decisions, it’s just, well, foolishness. That can curdle laughter into indifference or, worse, sympathy bordering on sentimentality. 

Lee Mack brings his polished comic timing and some fine physical work to the hapless father, tongue-tied with embarrassment, and he needs to because Sarah Alexander is given so little to do as his wife. (Her best moment is during a blackout scene change, when she gets her biggest laugh by taking a mighty swig of red wine clearing the table). Frances Barber has a lot of fun with the grotesque but lovable Elsa, but she’s trapped in caricature and so never creates the rounded woman the play needs as its villain.    

Peter and Debbie proved just too stacked with contradictions to believe. Of course, Brits are easy to embarrass compared to upfront Yanks (though not as much today as even 10 years ago) but would two successful, loving parents really be so paralysed in the face of such danger to their children? Would Elsa be so cavalier in failing to cover her tracks - she’s highly computer-savvy after all? Would she retain her passport in such circumstances, suspected on network television of being a modern day Lucrezia Borgia?

There are laughs in this play and some winning performances (Jem Matthews and Maddie Holliday are very good as the teens) but there’s a better, tighter, more credible comedy lurking beneath the waves of the one we see. 

Maybe we got on the wrong ship.   

The Unfriend at Wyndham's Theatre until 9 March

Photo Credits: Manuel Harlan