It wouldn’t kill us Brits to be a little more upfront with how we say things – or would it? Sherlock and Doctor Who writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have reunited on what is, respectively, their playwrighting and directorial debuts. A dark comedy taking the awkwardness of our politeness to the extreme, The Unfriend certainly is the kind of big and bold idea we’d expect from a duo who already have a few murderous dramas under their belt (Sherlock and Dracula), but what works well for television doesn’t necessarily work for theatre.
Reece Shearsmith (A Very Expensive Poison) and Amanda Abbington (The Son, and also of Sherlock fame) are your mediocre middle-class couple Peter and Debbie, who have just come back from a cruise. During which they met Elsa Jean Krakowski (Frances Barber), a warm American granny type from Denver who’d happily have sex with Donald Trump and has murdered six people – the latter of which they only learn after she makes plans to stay a while in their London home, at which point it would be far too rude to ask her to leave.
Many of the characters are clunky, uninspired clichés. Brooding teenage son Alex (Gabriel Howell) is the video game fanatic who rarely emerges from his bedroom, announces when he is about to fart, and incessantly yells ‘Mum’ for a considerable part of the play. For a comedy like The Unfriend, a certain amount of exaggeration, caricature and hyperbole is to be expected, but it’s a tired, sweeping generalisation of young people. Daughter Rosie (Maddie Holliday, of After Life) is no different, possessing an indignation and frustration over not being privy to as many conversations involving her parents as she would like.
Elsewhere, you have The Neighbour (Michael Simkins) who shows up at the most inconvenient times to talk about fixing the garden, and complain about Peter always being on his phone – that old technophobic angle. Shearsmith’s character is marginally better, satirising the men who like to read political news articles to deliberately make themselves angry. As the drama of housing a serial killer develops, the father pushes his face forward with an exaggerated smile, contorting his face almost to feign politeness. Debbie, meanwhile, is the more logical voice of reason of the two, arching her back forward and placing her hands on her legs a lot of the time to try and get through to her husband with a more sarcastic tone.
Those who have seen Sherlock and watched Doctor Who during Moffat’s time as showrunner will be alert to the writer’s flaws, one of which is plot holes or scenes which lack sufficient explanation (such is the risk when helming a show with a heck of a lot of continuity such as Doctor Who). Unfortunately, these translate all too easily into the writer’s theatrical work, too.
One disappointing fact is that for all the talk at the very beginning of the play about Peter liking to get himself wound up, it’s actually Debbie who eventually ends up going on an angry rant about the whole farcical, ridiculous situation. Even the play’s conclusion leaves some things open-ended for the audience to work out in classic Moffat fashion (I’m thinking about the well-known Sherlock cliffhanger where the detective survives a fall off of St Bart’s Hospital and we never really, confidently know how he did it).
Then there’s the humour. Comedy often works well with exaggeration, but Moffat does it to excess in his dialogue. While pushing Peter and Debbie’s wince-worthy politeness to its limit, he exhausts the same jokes throughout, exploiting every possible opportunity for double entendre from Elsa about her real, criminal identity (think of all the ‘kill’ and ‘death’ puns you can, and they’re in there somewhere). Other jokes are poor, cheap shots, including some mocking fat people and another making the usual tired comment about the pretentiousness of The Guardian’s writing style which we’ve heard countless times before.
A lot of this is tied to Gatiss’ direction of Barber’s Elsa, who stands out as an almost fairy godmother or Widow Twanky-like pantomime character in contrast to everyone else. She scrubs her eyes in an over-the-top fashion when she explains how goodbyes make her cry, wobbles her bottom lip when the couple try – and, naturally, fail – to confront her about her secret life, and at times flourishes her hands in grandiose theatrical gestures while delivering her lines. It might be argued that Elsa sticking out like this is rather the point – so as to illustrate how unwelcome and out-of-place she is – but tonally she is so different to the other characters that it’s jarring.
A shame, then, that all of this undermines otherwise hysterical comedy. Gatiss excels in the suffocating urgency of it all, the hilarious balancing act of contradictory white lies between children and guest (an excuse so shocking it kicks out Elsa without traumatising the kids), and Peter’s juggling of intruding neighbours, the random emergence of a police officer and the inquisitive nature of his children. Peter’s breakdown over the latter, which also involves a toilet, is delightfully absurd, as is one gag which doesn’t need a single word uttered to be utterly ridiculous.
Again, a play stretching the British tendency to attempt to say so much with so little is unquestionably clever and creative, but the comedy isn’t always as inspired. It’s a fun way to kill a few hours, but it wouldn’t hurt if you decided to give it a miss altogether.
The Unfriend is now playing at the Criterion Theatre until 16 April.
A relaxed performance is scheduled for 26 February, a captioned performance will take place on 8 March, a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter performance will take place on 18 March and the audio described performance will be on 1 April.
Production Images: Manuel Harlan.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘The Unfriend’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.