Richard Bean’s The Mentalists returns to the London stage for the first time since its 2002 debut at the National Theatre. In this revival on the other side of the Thames, comic and producer Stephen Merchant (The Office, An Idiot Abroad) is given his first theatrical outing as the frustrated and excitable suburban middle manager Ted. Joining Merchant is Steffan Rhodri (Gavin & Stacey) as Ted’s entrusted friend hairdresser Morrie who repeats fantastical stories about a multi-talented father and sexual prowess with women.
Set in a basic Finsbury Park en suite hotel room, Morrie sets up a camera while Ted leaves a phone message to a woman, who he unconvincingly claims is his secretary, lying about his whereabouts. The potential seediness of it all quickly erodes when Ted changes into a suit and frets over forgetting to pack socks which may be noticed by potential thousands who will watch the eventual video. The video being produced is Ted presenting his vision of a disciplined utopia which he would preside over having been inspired by the discovery of behaviourist BF Skinner’s book Walden 2 in a garden shed.
Ted is the latest in a long line of angry men in British comedy and Merchant’s interpretation of the character has a Basil Fawlty feel with his everyday internalised fight with society and built up explosiveness when something doesn’t work out how he feels it should. Ted’s desperation for a better world heightens Merchant’s physicality - limbs and sandwich platters flying around like a very English tornado. In the second half of the play it transpires that Ted has taken extreme irrational measures in his bid to start a life again - imagine if the Joel Schumacher 1993 thriller Falling Down was produced in Britain on a much smaller budget and you’re pretty much there.
Along with psychology The Mentalists is also about friendship. Steffan Rhodri’s Morrie supports Ted with his video production and gently guides him in attempting to show him another viewpoint when it transpires that things have got out of control. In many ways Morrie is an honorary older brother to Ted who stands by him till the bitter end of their time in the hotel room. Rhodri effortlessly moves from the comedy with a hint of sadness, of a character who creates an extraordinary imaginary world around himself, to the drama of a strong individual who handles a vulnerable friend’s breakdown with great sensitivity.
The Mentalists is packed with funny dialogue and carefully executed characterisation. It’s apparent that Richard Bean is a qualified psychologist when he’s not writing for stage and screen. A live equivalent to a much-loved sitcom that, were it not for contemporary references and modern technology, could be placed in any decade from the 70s onwards. An incredibly British production - darkly comic but with a heart.
Until 26th September. For more information visit thementaliststheplay.com