Friday, 17 July 2015

Theatre review: The Mentalists

I may have written the odd scathing review in my time but as criticisms go you can't really get much more to-the-point than the girl in the middle of the Royal Circle's front row tonight, who suddenly vomited all over herself halfway through the first act of The Mentalists. A bit of an overreaction, as this misguided attempt at a star vehicle is a misfire, but not enough of one to get that het up about. I quite like Stephen Merchant, who seems funny and down-to-earth in interviews, and I suspect he's behind most of the best work in his collaborations with Ricky Gervais. But his brief, broad comic acting appearances have seemed very much like extensions of his personality, and haven't given me the impression that he'd have a lot of range as an actor. Still, Merchant is the star name in Abbey Wright's revival of Richard Bean's tragicomic play as Ted, who books into a cheap Finsbury Park hotel room.

He brings with him a wallet full of credit cards, all of which seem to get rejected by the front desk; and his oldest friend Morrie (Steffan Rhodri,) a hairdresser with a sideline in filming sex tapes with his more attractive clients.

It's Morrie's skills with a video camera Ted wants, although he'll mostly be keeping his clothes on - after a lengthy introduction we find out he wants to be filmed making a speech. It's a call to arms, and I think it involves setting up a commune inspired by B.F. Skinner's Utopian novel Walden Two (I may be a bit sketchy on the details though, as this is the point at which someone chose to throw up into her own lap, then smear it generously over the rest of the front row barrier and carpet on her way out.)

Although gently amusing at times there's not much to really get stuck into in the first act. After the interval, with the auditorium's carpet liberally covered with cat litter, the play too stank less - it finds a bit more focus in looking at Ted's mental state, and just how he's let his life get to this point.

It would be unfair to blame Merchant entirely for the production not working - he gamely throws himself into it, but the role becomes another extension of his usual comic persona. Even his broad Westcountry accent needs explaining away in a line that feels like it was added in specially, and
to make us care about Ted's breakdown. But it's also a bad match of play and venue, an intimate two-hander that I think originated in a studio space, and feels lost in a West End theatre, even a half-empty one. I wouldn't have said it was bad enough to lose your lunch over, but there's little to get excited about either.

The Mentalists by Richard Bean is booking until the 26th of September at Wyndham's Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes including interval.

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