Chichester Festival Theatre, until July 9
The wonderful thing about Frances Barber is that she makes every second she’s on stage – or on screen – count. Anyone who caught her fleeting but
unforgettably terrifying appearance in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool can
vouch for that. She comes from a generation of actors who have had to work hard to get to where they are and play every part as if it were their last.
Steven Moffat’s new play The Unfriend gives her a great stage monster to play in Elsa Jean Krakowski, a loud, brash and utterly appalling American whom Peter (Reece Shearsmith) and Debbie (Amanda Abbington) have the misfortune to meet on a cruise, (which is, incidentally, very well realised in Robert Jones’s set design).
Elsa is, needless to say, a Trump supporter and, worse still, the couple discover after giving her their contact details that she has been accused of
being a serial murderer. The next thing they know, she turns up on their
doorstep expecting to stay and they are too polite to turn her away.
Mark Gatiss’s production covers familiar enough territory – unexpected and unwelcome guests have been a great comedic tradition on stage since George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s The Man Who Came to Dinner, if not before – but Barber throws herself at her role with such relish she makes it all feel a lot more than the sum of its parts. She can do things with her eyes, a hand movement, a turn of the head that linger in the memory longer than the witty lines. She is an actress who very obviously has funny bones: I cannot look at her without smiling.
Abbington and Shearsmith acquit themselves efficiently enough – the latter sometimes seems for ever trapped in The League of Gentlemen – and there is strong support from the ever-dependable Michael Simkins as a mind-numbingly boring neighbour and Gabriel Howell as Peter and Debbie’s strange misfit of a son. I also enjoyed Marcus Onilude’s brief turn as a gormless police constable.
It’s ultimately a rather slight one-joke comedy, but it’s played so well on Chichester’s Minerva stage – most especially by Barber – that I find I can’t seem to resist giving it five stars.