No matter how outré its premise, a comedy can take flight if it has the complete courage of its own convictions – in its setting, characters and plot mechanism. However, The Unfriend, transferring after a sell-out run at Chichester last year, is a lazy piece of writing that almost certainly would not be in the West End if it did not boast six-time Bafta winner Steven “Sherlock” Moffat as its author. Do working parents of teenage children seriously take themselves off without the kids on a month-long cruise? It’s the most insignificant of details, but it’s also crucial: if we don’t buy into the small stuff, we have no hope when it comes to the big points.
The big point here is certainly considerable: the discovery that your house guest is in fact a murderer, albeit one not convicted due to insufficient evidence. This guest is a certain Elsa Jean Krakowski (Frances Barber, overacting wildly), whom Peter (Reece Shearsmith) and Debbie (Amanda Abbington) meet on the aforementioned cruise. They strike up a breezy holiday acquaintance, confident that their paths will never cross again in real life. Yet Elsa has other ideas, promptly inviting herself to stay. Too British and too polite to refuse – “We’re dying of manners”, Debbie says desperately – Debbie and Peter instead Google their imminent guest and discover a string of dubiously deceased husbands.
If the lines zipped and sparkled this nonsense would be more tolerable, but they do not. Instead, the ruthlessly unfunny scenario grinds on in Mark Gatiss’s production, pummelling ideas that weren’t amusing to start with into utter oblivion by over-extending them. Shearsmith generates more than a touch of Basil Fawlty-style mania, although to considerably less comic effect. The couple’s surly teenage children are miraculously transformed by Elsa – the script doesn’t bother to explain how or why – into model citizens, leading to the sole genuine zinger of a one-liner: “She’s Murder Poppins!”
In the midst of so much that is over-egged and under-funny, one plot strand shines through, tightly coiled and eminently credible. Michael Simkins is glorious as the passive-aggressive neighbour (so dull that no one even knows his name) who endlessly irritates Peter with tiresome questions about a garden wall and barbed comments concerning the number of bottles in his recycling. “You’re a busy man!” he replies with faux bonhomie each time Peter evades him.
In the interest of balance and fairness, I must report that the general audience mood was one of warm laughter. Perhaps I have had a sense of humour bypass. Yet I have seen this play twice now and all I can say is please don’t make me watch it again.
To 16 April (theunfriend.com)