The Unfriend by Steven Moffat, dir. Mark Gatiss, starring Reece Shearsmith – review

Triumphant comedy debut from Doctor Who & Sherlock writer


★★★★★

Production photo from The Unfriend at the Minerva Theatre in Chichestershowing Amanda Abbington Frances Barber and Reece Shearsmith May 2022
Amanda Abbington, Frances Barber & Reece Shearsmith in The Unfriend. Photo: Manuel Harlan

What connects Doctor Who, Sherlock, The League Of Gentleman and No 9? The answer is The Unfriend, a new laugh-a-minute comedy that’s just opened at Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva. I’ll give you all the connections in a moment.

For now, let’s just say that Steven Moffat, writer and show runner for Doctor Who, and creator of Sherlock, has finally got round to writing a stage play, at the age of 60. It’s encouraging for we older folk to think it’s never too late, but I doubt there are many playwrights of any age who could make such a triumphant debut. It’s a long time since I laughed so much at the theatre. The man has comedy bones. He knows how to make old jokes sound fresh and natural. He understands how to give the actors the opportunity to use their faces and their bodies.

And what actors. Frances Barber is a loud confident American who turns out to be a serial poisoner, Reece Shearsmith and Amanda Abbington are the couple she befriends and who then can’t get rid of her, because they’re too polite. Although much of the praise should go to Frances Barber’s bravura performance, I loved Reece Shearsmith’s comic timing and panic-stricken face.

First the connections. Steven Moffat is probably best known as a writer and eventually showrunner for Doctor Who during the first decade or so of its new incarnation. He then created the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock which was co-written by Mark Gatiss who directs The Unfriend and we know him from The League Of Gentlemen, which also starred Reece Shearsmith, who cowrites Inside No.9, and stars in The Unfriend, which also stars Amanda Abbington who was Watson’s wife in Sherlock and Frances Barber who played Madame Kovarian in Doctor Who when Steven Moffat was the show runner. So they know one another and they work well together.

When Elsa arrives at Peter and Debbie’s suburban English house, you get a glimpse of their front door which has the number 9 on it. A little in-joke maybe, but it’s a hint that we shouldn’t be surprised that it turns out she’s no simple pain in the neck. They soon discover she’s a serial murderer- and they’re  still too polite to chuck her out. You might think this a stretch but it’s absolutely believable, not least because they’re aware of their own embarrassment. This is a comedy of manners, literally.

It’s non stop laughter with Frances Barber, Reece Shearsmith & Amanda Abbington

mandaI suspect how much you like it may depend on how much you identify with the self-defeating politeness and embarrassment of our suburban English couple. If you are happy to complain about the service in a restaurant, talk to your doctor about intimate infections, and barter with salespeople, you may well find this plot unbelievable.

You might also refuse to suspend your disbelief because the characters seem too much like stereotypes. The overly polite Brits who won’t say what they’re thinking; the brash American who makes jokes about a woman who is obese. But the thing is, the whole world is divided between people who are non-confrontational person and those who are blunt-to the-point-of-rudeness. But, there’s more than that, because Steven Moffat subverts each stereotype. Peter is actually quite rude but he doesn’t express it verbally- for example, he ignores his neighbour even when he’s in the room talking to him. And our call-a-spade-a bloody-shovel American may be a killer but she has a positive effect on this disfunctional family. The previously grunting son and negative daughter- two more stereotypes who turn out to have depth, and beautifully played by Gabriel Howell and Maddie Holliday, become happy chatty loving kids. ‘She’s Murder Poppins,’ says Debbie.

Production photo from The Unfriend at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester showing Maddie Holliday, Frances Barber & Gabriel Howell in May 2022
Maddie Holliday, Frances Barber & Gabriel Howell in The Unfriend. Photo: Manuel Harlan

By the way, the neighbour is a classic bore, but he too serves a more subtle function by reminding us of the claustrophobia of suburban life with its low level, passive-aggressive (as Elsa says) rankling about boundary walls and parking spaces, and therefore why residents of estates might need to be overly polite just to prevent all hell breaking loose. The neighbour is played to droning but sly-eyed perfection by Michael Simkins.

We also meet a police officer who is not a stereotype, not in the sense of the hard cops you so often see in TV dramas. He is another character subject to shyness and embarrassment, and given a scene-stealing performance by Marcus Onilude.

Although it’s his theatrical writing debut, Steven Moffat hits the boards running. His understanding of the stage is impressive. The Unfriend has structure, varying pace, and flowing comedy.  You know how comedies sometimes crowbar the jokes or the situation or particular characters into the story? Not here. The jokes flow naturally (for example, Peter is so uptight, Elsa says he would sever a proctologist’s finger at the joint.) In fact, Mr Moffat doesn’t force anything. He gives room for Reece Shearsmith to contort his face with surprise or embarrassment, or Amanda Abbington to express purse-lipped annoyance.

The story doesn’t develop much in the second act, but the laughs keep coming, so I certainly didn’t worry about that. I assume a lot of credit should go to director Mark Gatiss for the comic timing and the exemplary way the stage is used by the actors.

The set by Robert Jones is a triumph. It can’t be easy to create a suburban middle-class home, when you have an audience on three sides. However, with wooden flooring, a staircase, an L-shaped sofa and see-through areas at the back for kitchen and lobby, combined with a projection of the exterior of the house, Mr Jones does just that.

In the second act, we continue on tenterhooks about whether Elsa will poison again. The funniest scene is triggered by the fact that Peter’s embarrassment inevitably extends to talking about toilet matters (I too am bending over backwards to be polite). So, there is an extended scene involving him trying to find a reason to examine the (what shall we say?) product of someone in the loo, in case they’ve been poisoned. Of course, our embarrassment as an audience is almost as acute as his.

If you do go to see The Unfriend, you might be anticipating the punchline long before it arrives, but you’re still likely to be applauding when it does.

The Unfriend is playing at Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva until 9 July 2022. Tickets from cft.org.uk/whats-on

Paul received a complimentary press ticket from the producers.

Click here to watch this review on the One Minute Theatre Reviews YouTube channel

Sleepless with Jay McGuiness & Kimberley Walsh – review

Sleepless Is A Romance About Musicals


★★★

Production photo of Jay McGuiness and Kimberley Walsh in Sleepless A Musical Romance at the Troubadour Theatre in Wembley Park London
Jay McGuiness & Kimberley Walsh in Sleepless. Photo: Alistair Muir

If you’re worried that a musical couldn’t do justice to the classic film Sleepless In Seattle, don’t be. Sleepless does pretty much all you would hope from it and more.

Okay, Jay McGuiness and Kimberley Walsh are not Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. However what makes Hollywood stars great is their ability to convey their thoughts and feelings through their faces in close up. The composer Alan Menken said songs in a musical substitute for close ups when it comes to revealing character. And the songs by Robert Scott and Brendon Cull are both charming and do the job.

Jay McGuinness and Kimberley Walsh perform well, especially the latter as Annie who is the full package of acting, singing and dancing. Jay McGuinness as Sam is also impressive and very likeable but I felt his inexperience as an actor showed a little bit in the more emotional moments.

Now, you’ll remember the plot but just in case… A widower in Seattle can’t sleep and his son gets him on a late night radio show to talk about his situation. He’s heard by a journalist in Baltimore and she is one of many thousands who are moved by what he said. He receives a letter from her. She invites him to meet her at the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day. If you haven’t seen the film, I won’t give away the ending (and best not look at the production photo).

That subtitle A Musical Romance is interesting because this is not only a romantic musical, it’s a romance about musicals. Nora Ephron’s movie, although set in 1993, harks back to the films of the 1950s and in particular An Affair To Remember starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr (or it Carr, as the characters keep saying). So does this show. It is a tribute to the musicals of that time.  Just as the film has a soundtrack of songs from the swing jazz era, the songs here are a homage to the hits of that time- you can almost hear Frank Sinatra singing some of them. The costumes by Sue Simmerling are technicolored. There is a joy in language in Michael Burdette’s book.

You may be aware that I’ve been doing a podcast History of Stage Musicals for Box Office Radio so I’ve been steeped in the very best of the so-called Golden Age Of Musicals. While it may not plumb the depths of South Pacific or hit the heights of Gypsy, Sleepless is an uplifting musical and the creators’ love of that period really comes across.

Where Sleepless falls down is that it sticks too closely to the plot of the film. The first half is all about setting up for the second half. While that’s quite normal, Sam probably wouldn’t have had his problem with sleeplessness if he’d watched this first act late at night.  It really needed an additional subplot or at least some dancing to spice up the proceedings. I was probably naïve to expect the show to be sprinkled with dance numbers but it does star two Strictly Come Dancing alumni. Also, it’s a long time since I went to a musical that didn’t feature lots of dancing.

There’s plenty of smooth jazz style walking from the chorus and the odd moment of where emotion is expressed through movement. That includes a comedy duet between Sam’s son and his friend. The only ‘proper’ dance is during the curtain call when our two stars show that they still remember their Strictly moves.

There is good support from Daniel Casey as Annie’s dull fiancé Walter and the splendid Harriet Thorpe as her domineering mother. Tania Mathurin as her extrovert friend Becky and Cory English as Sam’s friend Rob (a new character) inject a healthy dose of comedy.

The set designed by Morgan Large evokes Sam’s job as an architect by using back projections of architectural drawings. In the same vein, the skeleton of a multi-purpose structure dominates centre stage with lots of vertical and horizontal lines.  Morgan Young directed this most enjoyable show.

Finally a word about the producers Michael Rose and Damien Sanders. I can’t praise them highly enough or indeed thank them enough for giving audiences starved of live theatre the chance to see this lovely musical, even though at 30% capacity because of social distancing they can’t possibly be making any money out of it. And well done to the Troubadour for their exemplary Covid-19 safety precautions.

Click here to see Paul’s YouTube video review of Sleepless

See Sleepless at the Troubadour Theatre until 27 September 2020. Click here for tickets.

This is the link to Paul’s podcast History of Stage Musicals in Ten Decades on mixcloud.com