Minerva Theatre, Chichester
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Mark Gatiss
The Unfriend takes a zany idea that’s been based upon a germ of lived experience and blows it up into a two-hour farce. Along the way there is some outstanding performance work, but the story fails to engage.
Peter and Debbie meet Elsa on a cruise. They are a typically mild-mannered English suburban couple, she is a larger than life American widow from Denver with a monstrous past. In a programme note Steven Moffat describes the tale that he has penned as “comedy gold”. Well maybe there are some nuggets lurking in the text, but there is a fair amount of tedium to endure too.
Reece Shearsmith and Amanda Abbington play the hapless Brits, the straight guys around whom the comedy happens. But there is a skill in creating understated English characters who work well in comedy, that Moffat doesn’t possess. Peter and Debbie are no Ben and Ria from Carla Lane’s 1970s TV series Butterflies and given that Moffat is currently a prolific UK TV screenwriter, the narrative he has created here is an example of quite how far the standards of British comedy writing have fallen. Some of the toilet gags in the second half are just downright puerile.
What is magnificent about this play however is Frances Barber’s Elsa. Her character is a female version of Zero Mostel’s Max Bialystock fused with Jack Nicholson’s Daryl Van Horne. Barber bestrides her scenes like a Colossus, devious, larger than life and irresistibly evil. Alongside Barber, Michael Simkins in the most modest of cameos is another perfectly crafted comic creation, years of experience manifest in his perfectly timed delivery.
Mark Gatiss helms the piece. Directing farce is the toughest of gigs and is clearly a craft that (the otherwise highly accomplished) Gatiss has yet to master. Robert Jones and Mark Henderson, Chichester’s current wonder duo of design and lighting, make the Minerva’s presentation of this drama look stunning.
And as for Frances Barber's performance, kill to get a ticket!
Runs until 9th July
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan