The Unfriend: Review

Rachel Creeger

Rachel Creeger

Debbie (Sarah Alexander) and Peter (Lee Mack) meet eccentric Elsa (Frances Barber) on a cruise and form a holiday friendship. She is insistent that they visit her should they ever come to Denver, but inveigles herself into their lives instead, appearing on their London doorstep unexpectedly earlier than planned.

Having discovered some shocking news about their impending visitor, Debbie and Peter had planned to cancel the arrangement, but instead find themselves the unwilling hosts of a hilariously sinister guest. Over the course of a week full of uncertainty, Elsa changes their family dynamic, challenges their relationship, and ultimately solves one of their biggest problems… or does she simply create a new one? 

The Unfriend is a traditional comedy of manners given a modern twist, as we now have the means to find out more than we might expect about people, but “Britishness” doesn’t easily allow us to be anything other than polite! The characters feel warmly familiar, and the script is packed with jokes which allow the actors to play with their physicality. 

Frances Barber is outstanding as the mischievous Elsa, and the way her dialogue twists and turns is reminiscent of how online trolls can choose to reinterpret a post on social media to provoke with their responses. Her character is deliciously Machiavellian. Maddie Holliday and Jem Matthews are fun to watch with their “Kevin and Perry” style teenage behaviour transforming into perfect child mode under the guidance of their peculiar house guest.

Sarah Alexander provides a modern mum, warm and likeable, and the gradual build-up of her tension and anxiety about Elsa’s proclivities leads to a beautifully constructed rant that’s cathartic for the whole room (and a request for a ‘tea with wine in it but no actual tea and just wine’).

Peter is everything Lee Mack fans want to see from him, a man being beaten by his desire for an easy life without wanting to put much effort into it. Mack is a great physical comedian and his agonised contortions when his British restraint is challenged made the audience both cringe and laugh in the right measures.

The Unfriend comes across as a sitcom more than a play in style, the storyline is predictable and reminiscent of the TV shows that have featured Mack and Alexander over the years. There was a running theme about passing wind that added nothing to the story, a repetitive and stereotypical meddling neighbour, and it was disappointing to hear a set of jokes about the obesity of the daughter of an unseen character. 

Special mention should be made of the set and lighting designs by Robert Jones and Mark Henderson, which really develop the sense of an overlooked family home becoming claustrophobic due to the increasing pressure on its inhabitants. 

The Unfriend makes for an enjoyable night out, especially for fans of the cast members who want to see them in a familiar role. It’s described as a pitch-black comedy, and certainly has brilliantly dark moments – these are mostly provided by Barber’s Elsa lighting up the room.

Written by Steven Moffat, directed by Mark Gatiss. Starring Frances Barber, Lee Mack and Sarah Alexander, featuring Nick Sampson, Jem Matthews, Maddie Holliday and Muzz Khan. 

The Unfriend is on at the Wyndhams Theatre, London until 9th March – booking link here.

Production photograph by Manuel Harlan.

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