Since his all-conquering One Man, Two Guvnors, playwright Richard Bean has been on something of a roll to put it mildly: Pitcairn at Chichester and the Globe; Great Britain, his play about the phone hacking scandal, at the National and then transferring to the West End; the book for the ridiculously short-lived musical Made In Dagenham, and a revival of his debut play Toast at the Park Theatre.
Now comes a new production of The Mentalists at Wyndham’s Theatre, a two-hander that premiered at the National in 2002.
It stars Steffan Rhodri and Stephen Merchant, who is making his West End debut, and is full of the laugh-out-loud funny observations for which Bean is well known and which were honed to perfection during his years as a stand-up comedian — indeed, Bean says in the programme notes that some of the lines in the play originally featured as part of his stand-up routine.
Ted (Merchant) and life-long friend Morrie (Rhodri) arrive at a less than salubrious Finsbury Park hotel room. They are there to record a video for Ted, who believes he has discovered the route to a Utopian lifestyle after reading a book by the American behaviourist B F Skinner and he wants to share it with the world — in exchange for the obligatory cash donation, of course.
Not a great deal happens in the first act, to be honest, with things mainly revolving around the setting up of the camera and preparation for filming. But things are kept alive by the banter between the two and mainly their diametrically different views of society. Merchant gets most of the best lines here, his frustration at the way the country is going to the dogs demonstrated by everything from the craftsmanship of the hotel door to the room service menu.
In the second act the laughs continue — one line by Ted about cheese boards is a classic — but things now take a decidedly dark turn as we learn a great deal more about this pair and the circumstances that have really bought them to this time and place.
There’s a nice chemistry between Merchant and Rhodri, although Merchant is very much Merchant and it’s not a stretch for a man who is a stand-up himself to deliver these lines in his familiar West Country accent.
The Mentalists is a small, well-crafted piece with some delightfully funny lines and the tipping over the edge into bonkers land is a nice touch. But as things turn darker, I wasn’t altogether convinced by the jeopardy. And the lack of real tension resulted in a rather flat ending to what had otherwise been an entertaining ninety minutes.
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