‘Worth the wait’: THE UNFRIEND – Chichester

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Minerva Theatre, Chichester – until 9 July 2022

Delayed two years by the pandemic, one of the most hotly anticipated shows of 2020 finally makes it to the stage in 2022. The combination of TV writer and former Dr Who showrunner Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith proves irresistible as The Unfriend finally premieres in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre and it has been worth the wait.

A snappy two hour comedy about a family who inadvertently invite a murderer to stay with them, Moffat creates a Pinteresque scenario that embraces its sitcom humour by combining a classic 2.4 children domesticity with a high pitch farce that wonders if knowing an avowed killer can actually improve your life, especially if they don’t behave as you might expect.

The intruder in an established scenario, particularly a domestic space, is a well used dramatic and comic construct, one that Pinter applied to many of his plays to create an unnerving tension, upending the established behavioural rules of that location and upsetting the power dynamic by slowly moving authority and focus from the householder or dominant partner to the interloper who gradually assumes control. The Unfriend uses this idea as its starting point and although not deliberately sinister in tone or narrative, the arrival of Elsa changes a pre-existing dynamic.

What Moffat does so well is to graft this notion onto a traditional sitcom trope – the dysfunctional family with stroppy and uncommunicative teenage children. And the two ideas blend rather well, Elsa retaining the unspoken concept of authority that Pinter would have given her but neither hiding or celebrating her notoriety but becoming a comic catalyst for family transformation that keeps The Unfriend light and largely frothy.

But nor is the play driven fully by finding out whether Elsa is a murderer after all or the concern that she might kill again. In fact, Moffat reveals her background in scene two, establishing immediately that an apparent homicidal maniac is coming to stay and watching the fall out from that knowledge across the play as protagonists Peter and Debbie try to decide what to do, concealing it from their children but equally too afraid to ask her to leave. It is their very Britishness about it that motors the comedy in fact, getting themselves into a series of scrapes and foolhardy situations. Again, these are very traditional sitcom structures which from Frank Spence to Rene Artois only lets the hapless lead make their situation worse as every attempt to improve their lot backfires or adds a new level of misery. And Moffat has a lot of fun tangling his characters in knots that leave them with almost nowhere to go.

The unfailing politeness begins in the very first scene set at the end of a cruise as Peter and Debbie try to escape the acquaintance they have made onboard. As they say their goodbyes to Elsa on sun loungers on deck shortly before the boat docks, they are unable to escape her attentions, the polite chatter escalating as the couple – desperate to make their farewell and leave it at that – cannot find it in themselves to be rude. It is a recognisable scenario, one that adds to its hilarity, as the consequences of an intensely short but functional friendship play out with the inevitable promises to keep in touch, the faux delight at the memories of their trip and eventually the passive aggressive expectation that contact details are exchanged.

Moffat’s point is that this failure to admit these things are any more than what they are is the cause of all the mishaps in The Unfriend, acknowledging what was a contained but time limited relationship and being honest about how they really feel at its conclusion is combined with a desire to please in order to spare the feelings of others and to be considered ‘good’ people even at great expense to themselves. And while the context of this prologue scene could have easily been woven into the text as some form of expositional conversation, Moffat wants us to observe Peter and Debbie’s behaviour to understand why the rest of the story plays out as it does.

Essentially a two Act drama which is then broken into a number of scenes taking place across the several days that Elsa spends with the family, the action of The Unfriend coalesces around “before” and “after” moments. We see the minutes prior to Elsa’s unexpected arrival as Debbie and Peter discover her secret via a very funny American-style crime series on YouTube and panic about how to defer her visit, beginning a number of running jokes including one about Peter’s mother that becomes a core looping point. The introduction of Elsa into the family space is very pointed, her bold, blunt and dismissive gregariousness providing a fierce contrast with the silent fury and emotional withholding among this British household who struggle to communicate or listen to one another.

A key reference point here is Joan Cusack’s groomed and charmingly evil nanny in Addams Family Values who conceals an equally murderous backstory. Elsa’s immediate assumption of their space and refusal to be cowed by their reserve creates some quite broad comedy but in this first Act, we see the threat she poses as a disruption to their routines and established stability (if not their lives) as the parents fail to tackle her or manage the dialogue as they hoped.

Act Two fast forwards a few days to the end of the week to show the effect she has had on them all. While Debbie and Peter are no nearer to getting her to leave, there has been a positive transformation in family relationships with the individuals in the household taking better care of themselves and each other under her influence. Elsa’s Pinteresque power is at its height having manoeuvred herself into a leading role by bringing change and improvement while continuing to pose a threat (still unknown to the children). The drive again comes from muddled attempts to speak with her and the failure of Debbie and Peter to be open or take charge.

The devil is in the detail of course and never more so than with comedy, and the humour is often very specific, more situational or linguistic than shaped by character traits or failures. The Unfriend is a light farce so the laughs are broad but the show doesn’t rely on slapstick, physical mishaps or people running in and out in a frenzy, instead any physical humour in the show comes from character appearance and sudden changes in behaviour – for example the controlled use of the slightly underwritten but stereotypical teenagers – or from comic facial expressions and reactions from the actors as events occur that become harder to rationalise.

A major strand of humour comes through the minutiae and pettiness of suburban living, using the lurking neighbour as a means to explore the additional pressures on the family about walled boundaries, hedgerow placement and car parking spaces while enduring nosey social judgement about their recycling habits and ‘fit’ with the area. It grounds the louder comedy of Elsa’s character in a more tangible reality of routine and ordinariness, making for an interesting and often very funny contrast with the elaborate serial killer set-up, referencing exemplars of suburban snobbery such as Keeping Up Appearances and The Good Life as the modern family try to balance internal and external expectations, finding little true privacy in their own home.

Directed by Mark Gatiss, The Unfriend draws all of these strands together fairly consistently, maintaining a good pace throughout, building mini peaks of comedy on the route to a bigger finale at the end of each Act. And on what is essentially a static set beyond the ship-based preamble, that is not easy to do with all the action occurring in the same unchanging living room space throughout – although fans may note the Number 9 briefly glimpsed on the front door. Robert Jones’s two-room set is a typical residential new build house made to look open plan for the audience’s purposes by removing walls around the small kitchen. There are demarcated zones in which Gatiss directs the action and with limited movement between these spaces (certainly not at speed as a physical farce might employ), the placement of characters on the sofa, the space behind it, the kitchen or on the stairs which lead to an unseen upper level are important. It is testament to Gatiss’s direction that the simplicity and its limitations are barely noticeable. Jones also gives enough of an impression of the grandeur of the cruise ship with only a few loungers and a painted backdrop in the opening scene to create a contrast with the crowded domesticity to come where physical and emotional baggage is more noticeable.

Frances Barber’s performance as Elsa is the centrepiece and Barber looks to be having a great deal of fun in this early preview performance. Her character is both oblivious and shameless at the same time, never hiding who she is and certainly not apologising for her demeanour or the things she has done. Yet Barber’s Elsa is a warm, unexpectedly life affirming creation as well, bringing light into this household and a simplicity of vision that has eluded the family previously. There is much joy to be had in the second half particularly as more of Elsa’s past and her own attitudes are revealed, but Barber creates a woman that the audience can like, her warmth making her appealing and with a view of morality that proves an interesting take away.

As Peter, Shearsmith probably has the very best of the comedy, creating an archetypal harassed dad trying to juggle work, family and neighbourhood responsibilities with the arrival of a tricky houseguest. Often on the backfoot and forced into embarrassing or socially uncomfortable situations, Shearsmith mines every opportunity the lines offer with impeccable comic timing while also looking for opportunities in between, measuring out often quite subtle reaction moments with care to generate maximum impact. Elsa may be the focus but it is Peter that the audience looks to for response and comment on the unusual events that occur. Shearsmith successfully grasps that responsibility, proving the everyman anchor and the put-upon protagonist that the show needs him to be while landing every opportunity for comedy.

Amanda Abbington’s Debbie feels increasingly like a secondary character however, taking an equal share of the conversation early on but is either absent or allowing / expecting Peter to lead most events in the second Act. Abbington gives Debbie some distinctive characteristics, including a flash of anger as her frustrations flare, particularly as the couple find themselves increasingly hemmed in, and Debbie is the one to connect the strangeness of a supposed poisoner improving her domestic life. There is good support from Michael Simkins as the persistent neighbour whose innocent gall fuels an important subplot while Maddie Holliday and Gabriel Howell as teenagers Rosie and Alex are suitably whiney and then improbably charming in their periodic appearances that nicely up the ante for their desperate parents.

The Unfriend is not a perfect comedy; a few more performances ahead of Press Night will tighten the flow and there is an irrelevant anti-vax joke that even the writer didn’t seem to recognise, but it is great to see this play finally staged nearly two years on with the talents of its original team at an important out of town venue. Its conclusion about the fluidity of facts weighed against the imposing effects of personality adds a political spin that feels very contemporary, leaving us with one important recommendation – to be less British and unfriend while you still can.

The Unfriend is running at the Minerva Theatre Chichester until 9 July with tickets from £21. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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Maryam Philpott on RssMaryam Philpott on Twitter
Maryam Philpott
Maryam Philpott has run the London-based Cultural Capital blog since 2013, predominantly reviewing theatre, but also exhibitions and special film screenings with a more in-depth and discursive approach. Since 2014, Maryam has also written regularly for The Reviews Hub, reviewing all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End, as well as contemporary dance, ballet and opera. She has a background in social and cultural history, and tweets as @culturalcap1.

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Maryam Philpott on RssMaryam Philpott on Twitter
Maryam Philpott
Maryam Philpott has run the London-based Cultural Capital blog since 2013, predominantly reviewing theatre, but also exhibitions and special film screenings with a more in-depth and discursive approach. Since 2014, Maryam has also written regularly for The Reviews Hub, reviewing all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End, as well as contemporary dance, ballet and opera. She has a background in social and cultural history, and tweets as @culturalcap1.

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