The Unfriend, Duke of York’s Theatre, 2024
Photo: Manuel Harlan
  • Theatre, Comedy
  • Recommended


The Unfriend

3 out of 5 stars

Now led by Lee Mack and Sarah Alexander, Steven Moffat’s comedy is lightweight but a pleasant enough way to spend a couple of hours


Time Out says

There were indignant jabs from critics when Steven Moffat’s debut play hit the West End last year, transferring from Chichester. ‘Well it wouldn’t get a West End run if it wasn’t by the former Doctor Who showrunner and creator of Sherlock’ was the gist, and that’s probably true; it almost certainly wouldn’t get a second West End run if it didn’t have the likes of Moffat and his Sherlock colleague Mark Gatiss involved.

But it’s a decently funny play with a great premise: awkwardly British couple Peter and Debbie meet a voluble American woman on a cruise. ‘You must look us up if you’re ever in town’ they say to each other, but Elsa Jean Krakowski follows through and turns up on their doorstep unannounced. It also turns out she might be a murderer.

The only difference here in its second stint is a casting reshuffle: out go Amanda Abbington and the sublime Reece Shearsmith as Debbie and Peter, in come Sarah Alexander and Lee Mack in roles that could almost be made for them.

Almost, because although they’ve got long teeth in sitcoms – Mack with about a thousand series of ‘Not Going Out’ and Alexander with a pedigree that stretches back to Moffat’s own sitcom roots when she starred in ‘Coupling’ – the weird thing about the play is that it’s not quite a sitcom. The setup is there, as is the living room set, and the high hit rate of gags. But this isn’t a half-hour jobbie. They’ve got to sustain it over two hours, with a script that has some saggy stretches.

Frances Barber remains a scenery-chewing delight as Elsa, hideously American in her over-friendliness and her velour tracksuits and her ‘people positive’ attitude, but inscrutable enough to leave just a trace of doubt about her nature and motives.

It’s a production made by a talented group, but a group who are all doing stuff that’s just missed the target of those talents: Moffat, a TV writer, doing a play. Gatiss, usually an actor and writer, debuting as a director. Mack ever so slightly shackled by a script he has to stick to. You’re half hoping, half expecting he’ll ad-lib a little, but there’s not really any room for that here, and so he seems a tiny bit diminished.

So yes it's patchy, and a bit stiff, and a bit dated. The best scene – a wonderfully puerile bit of farce involving diarrhoea and a man brandishing a toilet brush – is completely unnecessary to plot or structure or anything really. It’s there just because it’s funny. In this version, too, that scene earns its place a bit less without the intensely uptight Shearsmith conveying more in an anguished facial expression than some actors do in their whole career. Mack does a decent job, but he sits at sitcom level, never digging too deep. But who’s coming for depth? It’s a laugh, and there are far worse ways to spend two hours in a theatre.


Event website:
£25-£130. Runs 1hr 55min
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