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Review of The Unfriend at Criterion Theatre - Stellar cast performances do not rescue banal writing

Updated: Mar 10, 2023

Rated 🍯🍯

On a cruise holiday, an English couple — Peter and Debra — meets an annoyingly talkative middle-aged American woman called Elsa Krakowski. As is the case with most people of this kind — the garrulous kind that can’t take a hint and leave you wondering if they’re truly oblivious or simply apathetic to the vexation their listeners feel — she prattles on and on despite the couple’s repeated attempts to politely get away.

They stay in touch after the holiday. Not because the couple was enamoured with her, but because their British blood endowed them with such an obstinate commitment to properiety and politeness in social conduct that they felt they had no choice in the matter. And then, one day, she invites herself over to stay with them and their children for a week, at which point the couple decides to look her up online and realise she is an (alleged) murderer, responsible for killing (again, allegedly) even her own father and ex-husband.

You’d think now would be a good time for Peter and Debra to suspend their insufferable desire to be polite, throw caution to the wind and just say no to having a murderer in their house. Obviously, they couldn’t bring themselves to. After setting up the premise of the play — the pitfalls of propriety — the story became a little too obvious and predictable for the bee.

[Spoiler warning. Stop reading now.]

Of course the killer lady arrives at their place with four massive suitcases despite their attempts to stall or cancel. Of course Peter and Debra are like deer caught in the headlights, with deep-seated suspicions about this lady’s intentions but lacking the gumption to open their mouths; instead, they heartily welcome her into their home. And of course the couple spends the week clumsily tiptoeing around what they think are the lady’s attempts to poison them. The bee had even predicted the ending and wasn’t particularly surprised when it was proven correct.

[Spoilers over.]

The obviousness and predictability of it all meant that the audience had to resort to being amused by the stupidity of the play’s characters and their lines. Unfortunately, the stupidity of humans doesn’t particularly amuse the bee, so the bee found itself growing rather listless around the halfway mark.

You would enjoy this play if you enjoy the cringe-worthy stupidity of Michael Scott in The Office, or Kramer in Seinfeld, or Joey in Friends, or if you found yourself laughing when Ross from Friends wouldn’t hire a professional to get his new couch up the stairs and instead clumsily struggled with Rachel to move the thing, or if you liked The Book of Mormon musical (the bee hated it), or any of the hundreds of moments in all these shows when a character finds themselves in a sticky situation, and they open their mouth only to utter something that makes it all 10x stickier, until the scene implodes in disaster.

The bee may have enjoyed The Unfriend in the 90s, but after countless films and TV sitcoms have exploited the power of cringe-worthy human awkwardness and imbecility to make people laugh, The Unfriend simply doesn’t feel original, and quite frankly feels like an anachronism in today’s zeitgeist of dark humour, biting satire and clever jokes. Add a laughing track and it would’ve become indistinguishable from a 20th century style sitcom. The bee felt a strong urge to get on the stage, say what needs to be said to the killer on the couple’s behalf, and punch the couple for being so tiresomely ineffectual.

Two stars.

Watched February 2023 at Criterion Theatre, London

Disclaimer: The bee does not enjoy absurdist comedy, so this review may not reflect the viewing experiences of people who do. In fact, the audience at the Criterion Theatre was roaring with laughter for most of this play.

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