Get us in your inbox


‘The Unfriend’ review

  • Theatre, Comedy
  • Criterion Theatre, Piccadilly Circus
  • 2 out of 5 stars
The Unfriend, Criterion Theatre, 2022
Photo by Manuel HarlanAmanda Abbington, Frances Barber, Reece Shearsmith

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

Steven Moffat’s debut play is a disappointingly bland comedy about an English couple who take in a possible serial killer

There is an enormous amount of talent sloshing around ‘The Unfriend’. It’s the debut play from former ‘Doctor Who’ showrunner Steven Moffat, it’s directed by his ‘Sherlock’ co-creator Mark Gatiss, and it has a top-notch comedy cast led by Reece Shearsmith, Gatiss’s old mucker from macabre sketch legends The League of Gentlemen.

Unfortunately, it’s not very good, with a half-baked script from Moffat dragged down by surprisingly starchy direction from Gatiss.

It’s a comedy, which follows Shearsmith’s Peter and his wife Debbie (Amanda Abbington, another ‘Sherlock’ alumnus), an uptight middle-class couple who go on a cruise and meet Frances Barber’s Elsa, a kooky old American who invites herself to come and stay with them for a week. They reluctantly agree, but on the cusp of Elsa’s arrival, Debbie googles her and discovers that a lot of people believe she’s a multiple murderer. 

It’s an entertaining set-up, with echoes of both the League and Shearsmith’s cult successor show ‘Inside No 9’. But ‘The Unfriend’ is a disappointingly milquetoast affair. It’s content to exist as an overstretched comedy of manners, in which Peter and Debbie fail to do anything about Elsa out of social awkwardness. Which sounds quite funny in theory, but in practice is really not. The characters are barely explored. Moffat squanders his time on tepid set-pieces: Peter misses a chance to get rid of Celeste early on in a clunky, drawn-out scene that entirely hinges on him refusing to tell a minor white lie to his kids. An enormous amount of the second half is given over to an extremely diversionary sequence in which a policeman takes a dump. Peter and Debbie simply never seem bothered enough about the fact Elsa might off them to give the play any tension.

Waffly, unfocused and above all, bland

There’s potential here, and some good bits: Michael Simkins’s terminally pass-agg next door neighbour is funny, as are the couple’s self-absorbed teenage kids Alex and Rosie (Gabriel Howell and Maddie Holliday). But ‘The Unfriend’ never really feels like it’s having that much fun with the whole is-she-isn’t-she-a-murderer thing.

Moffat is an accomplished TV writer, and while not best known for comedy these days, he did mastermind enjoyable early ’00s sitcom ‘Coupling’. But clearly most playwrights don’t go straight into the West End with their first play. ‘The Unfriend’ is relatively short, but also waffly, unfocused and above all, bland. It’s easy to fantasise about what a playwright specialising in dark comedy like Richard Bean might have got out of the premise. But it’s doubly frustrating that as writers, both Gatiss and Shearsmith have such good form for this exact type of domestic grotesque; the cheeky little detail of Peter and Debbie’s house being number nine feels like it’s taunting us. 

Gatiss must also shoulder a lot of the blame for his aggressively unexciting direction. A lot of the more eccentric details of the play – the basic premise, yes, but also stuff like Peter’s inability to remember the neighbour’s name – feel undersold by the flatly realist tone. It often feels like it was written as a frenzied dark farce but directed as a dated ’70s sitcom.

The cast, however, is uniformly strong: the poo scene is very nearly made worth it by Shearsmith’s face as he waits outside the toilet door, a masterclass in every shade of embarrassment under the sun as he tries to persuade the policeman to let him examine his stools (for Reasons). And Barber is extremely good, keeping Elsa balanced perfectly between menacing and scatty.

Clearly, some sections of the audience liked ‘The Unfriend’ a lot more than me, and clearly I have been somewhat swayed by love of Gatiss and Shearsmith’s other projects. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have allowed the presence of two-thirds of The League of Gentlemen to get my hopes up for something with more bite. ‘The Unfriend’ is unexciting, unadventurous and too often unfunny.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


Event website:
Criterion Theatre
218-223 Piccadilly
Tube: Piccadilly Circus
£21.25-£91.25. Runs 1hr 55min

Dates and times

You may also like
You may also like
Bestselling Time Out offers

    The best things in life are free.

    Get our free newsletter – it’s great.

    Loading animation
    Déjà vu! We already have this email. Try another?

    🙌 Awesome, you're subscribed!

    Thanks for subscribing! Look out for your first newsletter in your inbox soon!