REVIEW: The Unfriend, Wyndham’s Theatre ✭✭

Paul T. Davies reviews The Unfriend now playing at Wyndham’s Theatre.

The Unfriend
Sarah Alexander, Frances Barber and Lee Mack. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The Unfriend
Wyndham’s Theatre, London.
8 January 2024
2 Stars
Book Tickets

A swift revival of Steven Moffat’s dark comedy about a serial killer, invited into the home of nice middle-class English couple Peter and Debbie, who are too polite to throw her out. It’s a comedy of manners in which manners could lead to murder, yet it all feels very safe and never reaches the depths of darkness that it could achieve. With Lee Mack stepping into the role of Peter, taking over from Reece Shearsmith, there’s excellent comic timing from all the cast, yet what could have been an Inside Number 9-infused tale of twists and horror, becomes a rather predictable take set firmly in Sit-Com Suburbia, maybe as a deliberate homage to the history of British comedy. (The teenagers are horrible, the neighbour an irritant, yet show-stealing, etc.)

The Unfriend
Lee Mack and Sarah Alexander. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The couple meet the enigmatic Elsa while on a holiday cruise and foolishly invite her to call round and stay if she’s ever in their part of England. Failing to conduct a Google search of her whilst on board, they discover, as she is about to arrive, that she is accused of several murders, though never convicted. Elsa is a part made for Frances Barber, and she relishes throwing every ounce of her energy into the role, holding the show together. It’s hard to get beyond Lee Mack’s comedy persona, even though he stars in the now longest on air sit com, Not Going Out, and I felt we never saw the character of Peter. He mugs a little too much towards the audience, and occasionally pulls focus. Sarah Alexander, an alumnus of Moffatt’s excellent Coupling, displays equally skilled comic timing, and Nick Sampson is totally convincing as The Neighbour you want to scream at for being so boring. Elsa’s influence is rather like a more sinister Mary Poppins, her effect on the children, Alex and Rosie, ably performed by Jem Matthews and Maddie Holiday, is to turn them into much nicer human beings, and the neighbourhood and an enquiring policeman fall in love with her.

The Unfriend
Lee Mack, Frances Barber and Sarah Alexander. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Perhaps because it is created by a writer of the calibre of Moffatt, there are high expectations for the play, yet, ironically giving how much Moffatt can twist a tale, the stakes are never raised high enough, it all feels a little safe. There are long sequences, Alex continually calling for his mother, The Neighbour spending many a long minute sitting on the sofa at the opening of Act Two, that have very little pay off. That’s not to say there aren’t some decent laughs, but it’s frustrating that a play that takes an age to set up its premise delivers so little, and ends just as things start to get interesting.

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