The Unfriend review – manners can kill you in Steven Moffat’s comedy | Theater

IAt number nine in a west London street live Peter (Reece Shearsmith) and Debbie (Amanda Abbington), a timorous couple who “die of manners”. They can’t communicate with their teenage children Alex (Gabriel Howell) and Rosie (Maddie Holliday), can’t stand their buzzy neighbor (Michael Simkins), and can’t believe they’ve agreed to host a guest – or, as Alex describes it as an “unforeseen obstacle”.

It’s about Elsa (Frances Barber), a brash American who was fun company when they met on a cruise, but whose arrival makes Peter yearn for a real-world equivalent of the pimple. “disliked” from Facebook. Hence the title of this first piece of this Midas TV, Steven Moffat, directed by his Sherlock/Dracula cohort Mark Gatiss, and worthy (praise, this) of a spot on Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s macabre comedy series Inside No 9. For Elsa is not just a burden. She could also be a murderer, if internet rumors are to be believed. Still, that’s no reason to fire her, is it?

Barely maintained borders are everywhere in Moffat’s script. The unresolved issue of a crumbling garden wall looms over the family’s interactions with its neighbor. Peter won’t allow Alex to break the wind in the living room, banishing him to “less public” areas of the house, while Debbie berates Rosie for the eavesdropping. In this sharp existence sweeps Elsa, a tornado in a Gucci scarf, which breaks all the politeness (“You’re a little passive-aggressive, aren’t you?”) and encourages the sullen children to come out of their rooms under the gaze disbelief of their parents.

“Barely maintained borders are everywhere”… Shearsmith and Abbington with Elsa by Frances Barber. Photography: Manuel Harlan

Despite her questionable political leanings, Elsa isn’t exactly a Trump surrogate, even if her burnt orange velor tracksuit is reminiscent of her complexion. Moffat is more concerned with the idea of ​​what seemingly moral people will accept in exchange for short-term gain. The decline in standards is happening gradually; before you know it, welcoming a killer (if that’s what Elsa is) doesn’t seem so bad. “Give her a year and we’ll vote for her,” predicts Peter, who reads this newspaper just to know why he must be angry.

Gatiss’ fast-paced directing doesn’t allow for shifts or thinking (potential producers have asked him, “Is that just funny?”) and the frenetic pace plays to the strengths of the cast and text. Simkins gives a brave, low-key performance calling on reserves of skill and stamina. Barber breathes new life into a dynamic – carefree tutoring American Brits – that seem vaguely played.

It’s Shearsmith’s night out, however, its climaxes of awkwardness becoming ever more finely calibrated as the hysteria escalates. Gesturing authoritatively with one arm, he is reduced to an ineffectual usher in his own home. Now two separate lies at once, he seems about to tear himself in two. The grotesque climax of the series, in which he confronts something far nastier than a fart in the front room, is an exquisitely embarrassed solo number of exquisite embarrassment. It’s a shame that Abbington doesn’t get a bigger share of the physical comedy, remaining mostly a looker or a straight woman, which seems like a waste of her gift for precision.

All this chaos is contained, more or less, in the appropriate jumble of Robert Jones. The lower half is a cross-section of the kitchen and living room, while the upper level appears to angle slightly away from us, giving the impression of an otherwise unremarkable hat worn suspiciously askew.

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