I took a trip to the Chichester Theatre Festival this past weekend to see the premiere run of Steve Moffat's first stage play, The Unfriend. Directed by Mark Gatiss, it stars Reece Shearmsith, Amanda Abbington and Frances Barber in a middle-class family farce that feels both ripped from stage farce tradition of a hundred years ago and brought bang up to date with all the modern concerns, foibles and fables. At its heart, it embodies a conflict between two points of view, a British caricature of repression, following the rules, living life the way one is taught it must be lived, insular and insipid, set against an American caricature of freedom, free expression, living without rules and consequences, do what though wilt and that shall be the whole of the law. And so for one British Middle England middle-class couple, Peter and Debbie, a stranger comes to stay, Elsa Jean Krakowski, who very well may be a serial killer, but who the couple are far too embarrassed to break social mores by doing anything about it. American, English, single, family, these are labels used to get to some inner truth about the way we behave as a species.
The Unfriend was meant to debut two-and-a-half years ago and was an early victim of the pandemic shutdowns and lockdowns. Restaged, there appears to have been a little rewriting for the world we now live in, and it reflects that beautifully. Frances Barber's character, Elsa Jean Krakowski, previously a Trump voter – because he'd funny and she would "do" him – is now also an anti-vaxxer. When challenged about the unfortunate number of people in her life who seem to have met a sudden, untimely end from a gastric illness, she doesn't want to point fingers but does make the observation that "they were all vaccinated". Is this the first positive portrayal of a Trump-voting anti-vaxxer on the stage? Or in popular culture as a whole? I mean, a murderer too, of course, but as this play stresses, this is all a matter of relatively. And so Elsa starts to make improvements in her host's life, and how the family relates to each other, with the underlying threat that she may be responsible for their deaths at any point. She is a parasite, the question is whether she is a symbiotic one or whether she will kill the host. As Amanda Abingdon's character Debbie names her, in one amazing monologue built up of middle-class repression vented out, she is "Murder Poppins" which may have made a better title for the play. Certainly when it comes to the West End or Broadway.
The observation is made that Elsa is cheating, everyone's life would be a lot less stressful and easier to deal with if they could just murder the sources of their stress, which suddenly felt very Kind Hearts And Coronets. The Unfriend is many things, it is an Ealing comedy, it is a living room farce, it is a sitcom, it is an episode of Inside No 9 (the address of the house in which the majority of the play occurs is No 9). It may even be Steven Moffat getting out the differences in experience he has had working with HBO in the USA and the BBC in Britain. But at its heart, it is a story of the human condition, the choices we make, and their consequences, good and bad. Elsa is a popular, positive one, if you can just look past the murders, and as an audience that is just what we are led to do. This situation is dubbed the "new normal" for the family, presumably another post-shutdown rewritten line, it asks what people can put up with, morally, for perceived positive results. How one monster can turn us all into monsters, slice by slice, until it all seems just a little less monstrous. This is summed up in Reece Shearsmith's character Peter's decision over whether or not to eat a sandwich which may or may not be poisoned. He decides to eat a corner of it, as if this was some kind of compromise, to "split the difference" rather than be impolite. Despite that, when it comes to poison, you really can't do that. Yet that is exactly what the family are doing with Elsa, they are splitting the difference over her murders and potential threat to their children, and she is poisoning them just the same. She is not a friend, but she is not an enemy. She is…. an un-friend. Still prefer Murder Poppins though.
As one might expect from a Moffat play, every line is weighted, revealing double meanings when viewed again, and full of call forwards and callbacks, a cog in a wider structural machine, Structure has been his thing since Press Gang, possibly more than any other writer working today. Reminiscent of the movie Clockwise, the hope of avoiding being murdered ends up far more stressful than actually giving in to the despair of death. The Unfriend probably misjudged the amount of toilet humour, going for shock and cringe, when there was already better on the stage with the central threat to the family. Especially with the blatant fact-talking of the children, Alex played by Gabriel Howell and Rosie played by Maddie Holliday who resolutely scupper their parents' lies and pretences trying to get out of the situation they find themselves all in. Their deliberately unnamed next-door neighbour Michael Simkins is an integral part of that structure, an outside force ready to tip and unbalance the play and one that must be righted by the end. Marcus Onilude has a wonderful introduction, a masterpiece of directing as well as acting as PC Dave – or is it Phil – the policeman, but his presence raises questions that are never properly answered. And while the central characters may be caricatures, they have been weighted with the strains and stresses of real lived lives. Reece Shearmsith has the hang dog characteristic he has perfected in his years of League and Inside No 9, he is so, so tired, to the extent that it is a personality trait. Amanda Abingdon refuses to be drawn into the restrictions of that life, she is the one who will speak out, but there is a gravity to the whole situation that she cannot resist being dragged towards. And Frances Barber is a supernova, here to explode that black hole, but may take out many more planets in the ensuing destruction. It's a role she was born to play. amoral playing at being moral. to the extent that she might actually believe it herself, and The Unfriend gives her the opportunity to shine amidst the middle-class decay. And hey, maybe Trump-voting anti-vaxxers aren't so bad after all. You know, when they aren't murdering everyone else around them.
The Unfriend is in production at the Chichester Festival Theatre until the 9th of July. Trains to Chichester go from London Victoria and Clapham Junction. The text of the play is also available.