THEATRE REVIEW: The Unfriend starring Reece Shearsmith, Frances Barber & Amanda Abbington at the Criterion Theatre

By Neil Durham


WHEN?: 15 January through to 16 April 2023 RUNTIME: 115 minutes (including a 15-minute interval)

One of the joys of Steven Moffat’s (BBC 1’s Inside Man) first stage comedy is its no-nonsense precision.

  • Read on for reasons including how this is the funniest play currently running in the West End

Its 100 minutes are so deceptively taut – like a rollercoaster ride whose thrills are frequent, sense of impending doom heightening yet duration brief – its effect is adrenaline-fuelled, laugh-a-minute and addictive.

Reece Shearsmith ((TV’s Inside No 9) and a supporting actor Olivier nomination for A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic) is Peter who is on a cruise with wife Debbie (Sherlock‘s Amanda Abbington) when they meet opinionated American widower Elsa, played by Frances Barber (MUSIK, Leicester Square Theatre).

Elsa suggestes they keep in touch, Debbie parts with her email address and, cut to the couple’s home in London, Elsa arrives unexpectedly early on their doorstep looking for somewhere to stay.

To complicate matters the pair have teenage children – Gabriel Howell’s Alex and Maddie Holliday’s Rosie are at each other’s throats – and a quick Google search reveals Elsa may in fact be wanted in the US for 6 murders including her late husband’s.

Part of Moffat’s skill is a command of language which means he can immediately reduce down into 2 words what happens next as the children warm to Elsa’s straight talking and others appear too to come under her spell (‘She’s Murder Poppins!’ 1 character observes.)

Most of the action is set in the family’s London home with a front room, kitchen and staircase set and the feeling is of Alan Ayckbourn on steroids particularly with the appearance of a dull neighbour played by Michael Simkins who nobody can remember the actual name of and who Peter at 1 point remarks: ‘The moment he breaks eye contact, I forget he exists.’

Mark Gatiss (The League Of Gentlemen Live Again!, Eventim Apollo) directs and brings fine comedic performances from both Shearsmith and Abbington who become increasingly manic as no-one else suspects that the woman who is cooking meals for their children may in fact be a poisoner.

Their tragedy is their perculiarly British trait of ‘dying by manners’ as they just can’t summon up the courage to ask their unwanted guest to leave.

Barber is perfect as the odious murder suspect who may just as easily be brash yet with a heart of gold and she slips exquisitely into a loud role that has her exclaiming she would ‘do Trump’ to a couple whose 20 years of marriage has left them with the ability to communicate ‘like telepathy – but more hostile’.

Moffat has written some brilliant TV, including 1 of our favourites Press Gang, and this is quite possibly the funniest play currently running in the West End. The Unfriend? We liked it very much.

  • Main picture via Facebook courtesy Criterion Theatre Tickets
  • Have you seen an Criterion Theatre production before and what did you think of this 1?
  • Let us know what you thought in the comments below
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