Lloyd Evans Lloyd Evans

Pure, heavenly escapism: The Unfriend, at the Criterion Theatre, reviewed

Plus: a musical by George Takei that fails to appeal to the emotions

Reece Shearsmith as Peter, Amanda Abbington as Debbie and Frances Barber as Elsa, who she plays as a brash, ageing sexpot, like Norma Desmond with a salty hint of Mrs Slocombe. Credit: Manuel Harlan

The Unfriend is a smart new family comedy which opens on the sunlit deck of a cruise ship. Peter and Debbie, a boring middle-class couple, are introduced to a clingy American tourist, Elsa, who worms her way into their affections. Before they know it, they’ve agreed to let her visit them at home after the cruise. A few weeks later, she shows up unannounced. By now the pair have learned from Google that Elsa is suspected of murdering her husband and several other members of her family. But they’re far too nice, and too English, to tell her to get lost. The crafty Elsa forms an alliance with their angry teenage kids, Rosie and Alex, and uses them to shield her from Peter and Debbie’s suspicions. It’s an amusing set-up and the script just about makes it credible all the way through.

Frances Barber plays the predatory Elsa as a brash, ageing sexpot, like Norma Desmond with a salty hint of Mrs Slocombe. There are terrific performances from Maddie Holliday and Gabriel Howell as the narky kids. And their roles are brilliantly crafted. The dramatist, Steven Moffat, may be over 60 but he knows exactly how teenagers talk and act. Michael Simkins does a hilarious turn as a tedious neighbour who is so lacking in character that no one can remember his name. Reece Shearsmith plays Peter as a numptyish everyman and Amanda Abbington’s Debbie is merely a female version of her husband.

The blandness is deliberate. In this closeted suburban world, feelings are suppressed, conflict is avoided, and obvious facts are dodged and fudged. That’s where the truth of the piece lies. The dialogue is admirably witty and inventive, and there are passages that would not disgrace Noël Coward.

There’s a slight dip in quality during Act Two when a policeman shows up and has problems with a malfunctioning lavatory.

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