We’ve all been there. You get chatting to someone on holiday, and you get on fine. Maybe go for a drink with them or a meal. You think, what a nice person. Then someone says, we must keep in touch once we get home. And then sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t. More often you don’t. This salutary tale will make sure you never consider this reckless activity in the future!
Whilst on a cruise holiday, Elsa from Denver, Colorado, gets talking to Peter and Debbie from suburban England. She clings to them like a limpet, and they’re too polite to discourage her. Elsa demands that they visit her in Denver when they’re next there (which would be never, obvs.) However, she corners Debbie to surrender her email address, which she triumphantly and ominously waves in the air after Debbie’s left. Would Elsa come all the way to spend a week or more in England? You betcha.
What could have been a gently amusing comedy of manners highlighting the behavioural differences between the brash, dominating American and the overpolite reserve of the English, has been transformed into a riotous comedy by a plot masterstroke. On a whim, Debbie checks Google, only to discover that Elsa is a mass-murderer. What on earth can they do now?! Peter and Debbie do everything they can to deter her, but Elsa’s more than up to the task. Are they and their family at risk of being wiped out? If not, who else will Elsa eliminate? You’ll have to see the play to find out.
Steven Moffat’s The Unfriend is two hours of unalloyed comedy bliss. There’s the successful, busy couple who self-medicate on wine to get through the day; two obnoxious, petulant teenagers who hate their parents almost as much as they hate each other; a dull-as-ditchwater neighbour who’s so boring that whenever he speaks you stop listening; and a well-meaning local bobby who treats their house as though it’s his own. Into this mix comes the bold as brass, unpredictable Elsa Jean Krakowski who – on top of everything else – has amazing insight and the ability to convince anyone of anything. A potentially lethal insight into what people are really like, in fact.
It is without doubt one of the funniest plays of the 21st century and sits perfectly among the best of Ayckbourn, Frayn or Nichols as a work that not only gives you a belly-laugh a minute, but also reveals the ridiculousness of English middle-class angst and the hoops that people will jump through in order not to offend, even to their own detriment. It also shows the unexpectedly positive power that a visitor can have by shaking up the comfortable rut into which a family can otherwise stagnate.
The structure and plotting is of the first order, and the dialogue is crisp and hilarious. There are so many ecstatically brilliant moments that turn on the inspired use of just one word. Go to see this show and you’ll be laughing at the use of “vaccinated” and “particles” for days. Mark Gatiss’ direction is razor-sharp; every one of the characters’ gestures and movements has meaning and is never wasted. Next time you want someone to sit down because you’re going to give them a good talking-to, you’ll find that you’re giving them a grand, slow arm gesture in the direction of the chair. It’s a gesture that takes on a life of its own in this show.
All the performances are staggeringly good. Frances Barber is wonderful as Elsa, always maintaining a slight air of mystery, her eyes and voice occasionally revealing the dangerous threat that lurks just a little beneath the surface. Delightfully dominating but never a grotesque caricature, it’s a fantastic comic performance. Amanda Abbington is great as Debbie, mouthing anxious messages to her husband, collapsing on the sofa without spilling a drop of wine, trying to keep order in the house when the odds are so against her.
There’s a fantastic double act from Gabriel Howell as son Alex and Maddie Holliday as daughter Rosie, whining and grumping their way around the stage as the Kids from Hell, until Elsa’s influence turns them into hilariously unbelievable sweetness and light. Michael Simkins is brilliant as the tedious nameless neighbour who is too easy to ignore, moaning about a property boundary issue. And there’s a fantastically funny performance by Marcus Onilude as PC Junkin who accidentally becomes the target of one of the funniest misunderstandings I’ve ever seen in a comedy.
Which brings me to Reece Shearsmith as Peter, in an outstanding comedy performance with remarkable timing and gloriously understated physical comedy. The sequence where he’s outside the toilet door makes your toes curl with embarrassment and your stomach cringe with agony but it’s the funniest scene I’ve seen in years. I wish I could give you more details but I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises!
The run at the Minerva Theatre is virtually sold out now, but there’s no way this production isn’t going straight into the West End; and with its many nuances, so many brilliant lines, deft deliveries and glorious gestures, it demands to be seen again. Up there with Noises Off and One Man Two Guvnors for longevity potential. As you might be able to guess – we loved it!
Production photos by Manuel Harlan