THE MENTALISTS, Wyndham’s Theatre, WC2H

GUEST REVIEWER LUKE JONES FINDS THINGS GET MUCH BETTER AFTER THE INTERVAL

The jokes bought this play some time. Richard Bean, a former standup, is hot property at the moment after a slew of critical acclaim. One Man Two Guvnors, Great Britain and Made in Dagenham have all built to this crafty delve into the archives.

Bean wrote The Mentalists in 2002 – his two strange protagonists are based on two strange acquaintances. But in the glow of his late triumphs, this play cowers, its juvenile flaws exposed.

Ted and Morrie are in a hotel room in Finsbury Park. Ted has discovered the “Holy Grail of how to live”. His plan is a new society, based on “benevolent control” and “cleanliness”. Morrie, who usually makes dirty films, is there to help produce Ted’s idealistic and mental party political broadcast.

The entire first half is anecdotes, wistful tangents and the set-ups for later gags. It doesn’t bore, but there’s no hook. If the show had suddenly ended due to some emergency in the first act, I’m not sure anyone would have minded.

Steffan Rhodri – as the neatly camp but defiantly heterosexual Morrie – comfortably inhabits all these quirky stories and brings a gently enjoyable performance. Stephen Merchant as the uptight yet unfinished Ted struggles. His entire first half is spent cueing up the second. The real drama frustratingly tunes in after the interval and both rise to it well. For me, the good stuff came just in time. Others I fear may have been left behind.

Post-ice cream /gin and tonic, the play suddenly acquires bite. We’re finally given the punchlines to the ramble we were given earlier and an actual story emerges. We learn of murder, lies and madness.

The director, Abbey Wright, marshals both actors well. There is the right amount of physical comedy and the gags finally land with the kind of satisfaction you only get when you’ve had 45 minutes of build-up. Although Stephen Merchant has sizeable comedy chops, and the face of a cherished family pet, his solid performance is still some way behind the engaging Steffan Rhrodri. But Merchant handles the gear change from gentle standup to tragic comedy well and plays the vacant madness hilariously.

It is not the storming two-hander you might expect; it is too slow for that. But from almost nothing this play grows into something funny, shocking and unsettlingly tragic.

– LUKE JONES

Rating: three 3 Meece Rating

UNTIL 26th September at Wyndham’s Theatre: BOX OFFICE 0844 482 5120

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