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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Wyndham's Theatre


  Stephen Merchant and Steffan Rhodri/ Ph: Helen Maybanks

It’s hard to believe that Richard Bean, who split people’s sides with his record-breaking hit One Man, Two Guvnors, could also have written The Mentalists, a clumsy, discombobulated, poorly structured comedy whose ungenerous sprinkling of moderately funny one-liners goes no way at all in mitigating this depressing two-hander.
Admittedly, it was written in 2002, long before One Man, and modestly staged by the National Theatre in an experimental workshop production. That’s where it belonged. And that’s where it should have remained. By bringing it into the full glare of the West End, and at jaw-droppingly inflated prices, the producers have made the mistake of presenting a reputation rather than a play.
The other reputation at hand is lanky Stephen Merchant’s, the stand-up comic and co-author with Ricky Gervais of TV’s The Office and Life’s Too Short. Here, making his West End stage debut, he plays Ted, a middle-aged, unhappily married father of two. He’s also the manager of an industrial cleaning outfit in Swindon who decides to change his life – and the lives of others – by promulgating the philosophy of a behavioural psychologist called B.F. Skinner.
In a nutshell, what Ted wants to do is create a utopian society governed by exemplary good manners, kindness and compassion. To help him realise his dream, he recruits Morrie (Steffan Rhodri), a childhood friend who divides his time between practicing as a professional hairdresser and making soft-core porn. Together this odd couple checks into a run-down hotel room in North London, where Morrie has agreed to film a promotional video of Ted extolling the virtues of his utopian society. Hoping to recruit a thousand converts – and at a cost of £29.99 per video – Ted is convinced he’s at last on to something worthwhile. It soon becomes very clear, however, that Ted is completely off his proverbial rocker. Or as Morrie puts it, “You’ve got on the District Line, fallen asleep and woken up in Barking.”
As for Morrie himself, he’s a fantasist who worships an invented father (“the only British boxer to have boxed at every weight”) and, despite his belief that women find him irresistible, is probably a little in love with Ted.
Trouble is, the dynamic between the two men and the weird relationship they share never rings true, never engages one’s interest or allows for any kind of involvement. There’s a Pinter-esque strand in the writing, but without any of Pinter’s subtlety or sense of menace or mystery. I found it hard to believe in anything that was spoken or done in the play’s one hour and 50 minutes.
Because Ted (who, we learn late in the play, has murdered a wino and dumped him in the boot of his car) is so off-the-wall, it’s impossible to engage with him on any level. And because Merchant is simply not a good enough actor to make the character’s lunacy in any way compelling or meaningful, there’s little, if nothing, in his personality to engage an audience.
More interesting in every way is the ambiguous Morrie, and Rhodri at least manages, on occasion, to involve us in the contradictions in his character. He even elicits a smidgen of sympathy every now and then.
Abbey Wright directs but is unable to find the key to unlock the sheer incredulity of the situation. Nor is she able to impose a sense of structure or a compelling tone of voice to the shambolic goings on. The deliberately tacky set design is by Richard Kent.


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