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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Wyndham's Theatre


  Stephen Merchant/ Ph: Helen Maybanks

Richard Bean is a big name these days. His farce One Man, Two Guvnors – which exuberantly translated Goldoni's commedia dell'arte to a 1960s seaside setting – became a huge hit and transferred to Broadway after opening at the National in 2011. Subsequently keen to produce a Bean-feast, the West End has played host to the dramatist’s satire Great Britain, then the musical that he scripted, Made in Dagenham. 
And now we have this star-cast revival of his cranky early comedy The Mentalists. Gangling Stephen Merchant (from Hello Ladies and The Office in the U.K.) and relatively pint-sized Steffan Rhodri (from the BBC's Gavin & Stacey) play Ted and Morrie – an odd couple locked in a tacky hotel bedroom with a video camera. 
What they're up to is, initially, a puzzle. Merchant's Ted is a grey-suited manager for a cleaning firm. A ridiculous petty bore, he yammers on about his company car's three-liter, 16-valve engine and braking system before launching into sudden rants about filthy vagrants and commies. Rhodri's long-suffering Morrie is more liberal: a cockney hairdresser and casual fabulist with, perhaps, a sexoholic streak. He makes soft porn vids as a sideline. 
However, he has been commandeered today to film his old friend fanatically proselytising about the need to found a new cultish, clean-living society – based on the 1940s novel Walden Two by the psychologist B.F. Skinner.
One might argue that The Mentalists taps into the zeitgeist, chiming with other current London productions about dystopias and utopias including 1984 and Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs. But the disappointment is that this two-hander seemed more entertaining and engrossing the first time round, in 2002, when it premiered in the NT’s Loft, which was a tiny, pop-up auditorium for new plays. 
Abbey Wright's production at Wyndham's feels overstretched and falls oddly flat. Is the larger space (600 seats) less than ideal? Probably. The Mentalists is exposed as low on plot developments and a bit meanderingly gabby, though laced with gags. A further shortcoming is that the performances – especially Merchant’s – are droll but emotionally superficial, such that the belated darkening revelations (involving a corpse) lack credibility. Merchant’s skin-deep performance feels theatrically thin, whether it’s aiming to be mere light entertainment or wryly in tune with Skinner’s behaviourist creed (which questioned Freud’s "mentalist" focus on a person’s inner life).
The realism of designer Richard Kent’s drab beige set, complete with trouser press, is spot-on. Too often, though, Wright appears to have encouraged her actors to play to the audience, turning their bodies outwards, a tad self-consciously. At the close, Rhodri does admirably gain more depth, his Morrie proving quietly loving and protectively loyal. Meanwhile, Merchant certainly has comic gawkiness and nice timing, getting in flailing rages and mouthing off about how the Greeks’ civilization peeked early, so now all they’re capable of is driving at 90 miles an hour in flip-flops. Ultimately, in fact, the trouble is he’s too likeable and not convincingly psychotic enough.
Kate Bassett is a theatre critic for The Times of LondonTwitter: @katebassett001.


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