Wyndham’s Theatre, London until March 9
The answer to what has gone wrong in American politics – if not our world – comes in three words: Elsa Jean Krakowski. She is the deranged, Trump-supporting, conspiracist anti-vaxxer that the great Frances Barber plays in Steven Moffat’s play The Unfriend, which is now beginning a proper West End run at the Wyndham’s Theatre after opening at Chichester in 2022 and then tipping a toe into the water at the little Criterion at the start of last year.
Krakowski can say with utter conviction the daftest things about how various individuals who have clearly been murdered really died because they were vaccinated, and that Trump was only cheated of re-election because not enough people voted for him. As abhorrent as her politics and world view are, Barber is careful not to make her a mere symbol, or still less a cartoon baddie, but invests her, too, with a certain charm that makes her all the more dangerous.
With the big hair, make-up and garish frocks, there is a lot of the late Bette Davis in Barber’s performance, and, while I have no doubt living with this character for so long must be driving the liberally minded Barber insane, she has still managed to create a great stage monster.
Barber is the only surviving star of the original cast, and, inevitably, the best thing about this flawed but entertaining piece that’s directed by Mark Gatiss. Lee Mack and Sarah Alexander are now enlisted as the hapless couple who encounter Krakowski on a cruise and make the fatal mistake of inviting her to stay when she’s next in the UK.
Mack is energetic but perhaps overly so and too often seems to think he’s doing a stand-up routine, which doesn’t make life any easier for Alexander as his wife. Still, this latest production has a real gem in the lugubrious shape of Nick Sampson as a mind-numbingly boring neighbour who gets what’s coming to him.
A lot of the laughs in the second act are, alas, cheap and lavatorial and it’s a pity its writer Moffat didn’t use the recasting as an opportunity to do a spot of rewriting. The show is still exasperatingly only just this side of brilliance.