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The Unfriend at the Criterion Theatre – review

The West End transfer of the Chichester hit runs until 16 April

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Reece Shearsmith and Gabriel Howell in The Unfriend
© Manuel Harlan

Doctor Who and Sherlock showrunner Steven Moffatt has murder on his mind. Hot on the heels of his dark BBC series Inside Man, which featured Stanley Tucci as a murderer on Death Row, comes The Unfriend, which also has a very unlikely killer at its heart.

But whereas Inside Man was chilling, The Unfriend sweeps into the West End from the Chichester Festival Theatre on gales of laughter, bringing a much-needed jolt of pure, comic joy to the darkest of January days.

Ably directed by Moffatt's long-time Doctor Who and Sherlock collaborator Mark Gatiss and superbly performed by Reece Shearsmith, Amanda Abbington and Frances Barber who are all creative mates, the play is propelled by energy, invention and perfect casting.

Its central premise – almost unbelievably – is based on a true story. Debbie (Abbington) and Peter (Shearsmith), an uptight English suburban couple, meet the blousy, Trump-voting eccentric Elsa Jean Krakowski (Barber) on a cruise. Just before she tricks her way into their home, they look her up online and discover that she is suspected of multiple murders. But their sheer crippling politeness – "there's no etiquette for this" – prevents them from barring their doors.

Once ensconced in their midst, she has a remarkable effect, like a "Murder Poppins", bringing their unhappy adolescent children (Gabriel Howell and Maddie Holliday) into the family fold, spreading happiness wherever she goes. And – perhaps – murdering people.

It's a brilliant premise, brilliantly realised. Moffatt's writing is razor sharp, and his structure tight as a python, moving swiftly from family sitcom (the son who is only allowed to fart upstairs) to frenzied farce (the after-effects in the downstairs lavatory of a policeman who may or may not have been poisoned). But it's the performances that make its zinging script really sing.

As the seductive but dangerous Elsa, Barber is utterly mesmeric. She's clearly having a whale of a time, as she stalks Robert Jones' cluttered, homely set in a range of brightly-coloured leisure wear, but her timing never fails her. She can turn a simple line into a dagger. "You're a tiny bit passive aggressive," she says, looking at Michael Simkins' neighbour, a man so boring that no-one remembers his name.

Reece Shearsmith, Frances Barber and Amanda Abbington in The Unfriend
© Manuel Harlan

This of course is the glory of Elsa. She says the things everyone is thinking but embarrassment and societal rules prevent it. "Of course, I'm uptight. I'm not allowed to murder anyone," says Debbie at one point, and Abbington perfectly captures her frustration at finding her house squatted by this charming monster, who is slowly bringing everyone under her spell.

Abbington's superbly-modulated characterisation provides the perfect foil for Shearsmith, who rises from merely clenched dismay to paroxysms of discomfort and despair. The subtle shades of pained looks that pass across his face as he tries to embellish a story about his mother's (fictional) illness, and his rising panic as he attempts to control situations that are constantly beyond his reserved grasp, are comic acting of the highest order.

But the entire cast works like a finely-tuned engine. Howell and Holliday wrest wonderful humour from the grumpy adolescents and as the neighbour, Michael Simkins offers an acutely-observed turn of blandness that accurately captures just how much suppressed venom can be casually placed into description of someone's recycling habits.

Under its comic surface, The Unfriend does in fact have quite a few darker themes, not least how little we know about the people we meet, and the methods by which we judge them. Or how tempting it is to kill someone. These sustain the action, but it's the sheer brio of the piece that make it such a hit.