Farcical Friendship: The Unfriend, Criterion Theatre, London
Sherlocked ? Then prepare for a farce about friendships (and how we try to get rid of them!)
Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have collaborated with a Sherlock chum or two (Amanda Abbington) on what happens when social ‘friends’ suddenly turn up on your doorstep and do take you up on your offer to visit, practically moving in with you. How do you get rid of them? How can they, politely, be asked to leave? More Brian Ricks than Shallow Grave, Frances Barber plays a splendid part as Elsa, a sweet chatty old American lady - with a penchant for cruises and bumping off her husbands, family and potential new housemates…
Else encounters very middle class English Peter (Reece Shearsmith) and Debbie (Amanda Abbington) on the sun loungers on a cruise. The couple are packing and leaving (or in Peter’s case — avoiding packing to indulge in internet rage instead). Elsa offers her card, but can’t find it — and queue sharp intake of breath — gets Debbie to give her email address instead.
There follows an explosion of social niceties. Debbie and Peter cannot communicate with their children — their son Alex (Gabriel Howell) channeling all of his inner Kevin the Teenager and daughter Rosie (Maddie Holliday) don’t communicate with their parents or each other. Everyone shouts up and down stairs, and preferably through walls of separate rooms — Debbie and Peter shout via glasses of wine, and Peter shouts probably on Twitter or Guardian comments sections. Then, with a wagon-load of matching luggage, Elsa arrives via taxi, deposited at the wrong address, and *horror and middle class squirming* makes herself at home.
This isn’t The Play That Goes Wrong laugh out loud — too many fart and poo gags for my liking. Also have either of the writers actually met real teenagers (of today?) Alex (with all his gaming and lack of comms) seemed very Harry Enfield, whilst Rosie headed towards Saffy from Ab Fab. Alex’s increasingly desperate shouting for his mum (or muuuuuuuuuum) to answer the phone (when she wasn’t in the house) was hilarious. His holding back wind less so (and this gag repeated throughout).
Having set up a clash of Trump supporter vs Guardian liberals, the conversation never really developed. This is no The 47th. Instead Elsa was found out as a murderer and potential despoiler of family values — all very Agartha Christie or Patricia Highsmith. In a hilarious moment, Debbie and Peter dream of firmly confronting her, to get Elsa to finally go — but it turns out to only be a dream. Instead Elsa charms the kids, gets Alex exercising outside as well as gaming, and hugging his dad. Equally she charms Rosie with a trip to the ‘mall’ and encourages Rosie to appreciate her parents and brother, and creates a happy family situation, where everyone loves each other. She also wears a hilarious velour track suit (very Trumpian tan orange!) But far from being a bringer of bad things into the home, Else does good — bizarrely, as well as dispensing therapeutic words of wisdom, Oprah-style!
Whilst they can’t trust her cooking or what she’s fed the policeman as a snack (or indeed the tea), they seethe inwardly (and through wine consumption) as Else works happy, cosy changes within the family. Their poor neighbour (who they ignore pretty much for no good reason other than they don’t like him) finally does get an answer to his question and even something which isn’t quite his cup of tea. Even more worryingly than the passive-aggressive dubbed neighbour, is the resident policeman — who uses the loo and creates forensic evidence for Peter and Debbie to inspect for signs of Elsa’s malicious intents.
I’m making it all sound not very funny, whilst it genuinely was. However, this was individual rather than composite elements, and it felt clunkily old fashioned in parts by relying on rather lazy stereotypes of teens. The actors all created really good scenarios and worked with the whizzing pace of the show — particularly Amanda Abbington who glugs wine at one point, and festers with barely suppressed rage as the rest of the family turn to the ways of Elsa and harmonious family living at the end. I think what made it less funny than it could have been was an over-reliance on gross out comedy, and also an imbalance between whether it was a satire and culture clash comedy, or a more Wildean comedy of manners, or indeed pure farce with everyone running in and out of doors, frantically gesturing and getting confused, or something more like a suburban comedy like The Good Life, with clashing values all coming home to roost. It had a lot of potential to do all of these well, but never quite gets to where it should, as it can’t really choose which one it is.
However it is very funny and the situational comedy (actors, pace and staging) is really well done). Elsa is splendid — even having Bette Davis ‘Baby Jane’ moments and worth watching for the sun loungers, her constant expressed horror of ‘violent’ Guardian loving London and the kids getting all of her luggage up the stairs, staggering under the capaciousness of it all, alone. Michael Simkins also plays a great side part as the neighbour who just wants Peter’s attention.