Steven Moffat’s The Unfriend

Maddie Holliday, Amanda Abbington, Reece Shearsmith, Frances Barber & Gabriel Howell in The Unfriend at Chichester Festival Theatre Photo by Manuel Harlan
Maddie Holliday, Amanda Abbington, Reece Shearsmith, Frances Barber & Gabriel Howell in The Unfriend (Photo: Manuel Harlan/Chichester Festival Theatre)

The Unfriend, with its Best of British line-up, is a joyous display of social etiquettes gone wrong.

The Unfriend, written by Steven Moffat, and directed by Mark Gatiss is a new play currently showing at Chichester Festival Theatre.

Starring Reece Shearsmith, Amanda Abbington and Frances Barber as the leading cast, the show is as much a reflection of the middle-class society as it is the audiences of shows synonymous with the crew working to make the production.

The drawing power of Inside No. 9; The League of Gentlemen; Sherlock and Doctor Who not only need addressing given the names of those involved but also the show is as much mirroring their demographic to become the punchbag of jokes that The Unfriend jabs at throughout.

Shearsmith and Abbington portray a busy white collared couple, Peter and Debbie respectively, befriending a larger than life American on board a cruise, Barber’s Elsa Jean Krakowski, when after the British manners prevent either Peter or Debbie from saying ‘no’, they find themselves playing host to Elsa’s surprise week-long visit – except moments before arriving Peter and Debbie searched up her identity online and saw she had been involved in six deaths.

Yet, this self-proclaimed positive Colorado tourist doesn’t fit their expectations of the accusations they read online.

Rather, upon arriving, her anti-vax, pro-Trump mentality only seems to improve their lives and their relationship with their argumentative teenagers.

As though one line used as the dialogue was in fact the idea’s inception for Moffat.

“She’s Killer Poppins!” exclaims Abbington’s Debbie in bewildered fear. The paradoxical nature of a killer being Super Nanny feels as though it was the original slugline that inspired Moffat’s script.

The Unfriend stars Reece Shearsmith, Frances Barber and Amanda Abbington, (Photo: Manuel Harlan/Chichester Festival Theatre)

The contrasting comedy between British politeness as not to offend, and the fear of being murdered by somebody you invited into your own home, is an odd sell, but yet is done so with characteristic charm.

Though, in truth, when diluted to its simplest form, the show is best celebrated for its performances from cast Shearsmith, Abbington, and Barber alongside Gabriel Howell and Maddie Holliday.

Each adds a quality that will be hard to replicate in years to come when this show finds success either in London’s West End or as a televised adaptation, similar to Daniel Evans and James Graham’s Quiz.

What was most impressive in truth, was the set transition, built by Robert Jones as the cruise facade fades, and a full house interior is moved into view.

In television, the ‘bottle episode’ is a term used to refer to an episode often told in a singular location with a minimal cast.

One could argue therefore that every episode of Reece Shearsmith’s Inside No. 9 is a bottle episode, and this allows for an intimate story to be told, focussing on character beats, moments, and nuances of performance.

Aided by the tiny venue of the Minerva Theatre at Chichester Festival Theatre, each delivered line feels as much a jab at the actors as if delivered directly to you the audience, breaking the fourth wall, and becoming a fly on the wall of their home during their week of hell.

However, this show is not without its faults.

Scenes do drag a little long, and whilst the art of telling a good joke is to start small and dial it up to the extreme, there is a long duration of toilet based humour, where no development feels like it’s being made, nor is the scene getting any funnier.

Similarly, moments before the interval, a similar event occurred where I felt as though the natural pacing of the scene had come to an end, but yet dialogue still had to be waded through in order for the gratification of a pot of ice cream and holding a novelty shovel-shaped instrument tucked within the lid of the frozen treat.

The names attached, the cast involved, and the quintessential British satire on our innate politeness will see this show to be a success. Not least at Chichester, but in years to come as a West End production, and potentially a televised anthology.

That much is sure, but there are tweaks to be made to the otherwise practically perfect in everyway script.

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By Conor Riley

Conor is the Founder and Editor for Cinamore, a publication focused on giving power back to journalists. As a portmanteau of the word 'Cinema' and the Italian word for love 'Amore', Cinamore aims to highlight the love that we all carry for the art of the moving image.


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