The Mentalists, a comedy by Richard Bean that premiered at the National Theatre in 2002, has its first major revival at the Wyndham’s Theatre, in a production directed by Abbey Wright. It is a two-hander that stars Stephen Merchant, most famous for co-writing and starring in The Office, alongside Steffan Rhodri. I got to see the show on a complimentary ticket thanks to theatrebloggers.co.uk.
Richard Kent’s set is a nondescript hotel room in your average budget national chain that could be anywhere – but this one happens to be in Finsbury Park, although Merchant’s Ted has told his work he’s in Exeter. By day a middle manager in an industrial cleaning company, he’s convinced his friend Morrie (Rhodri) to help him out with a film he’s making. The gangly, grumpy Ted wants to convince members of the public to buy into his utopian dream – and if this sounds like a somewhat implausible set-up for the play, it’s worth noting that Bean based his work on a real-life video he himself sent off for out of curiosity. His own study of psychology and his encounters with psychologist B.F. Skinner – who espoused radical behavioural psychology as an alternative to “mentalism” – has informed the play, with the character of Ted inspired by Skinner and his sci-fi novel Walden Two.
With his dour West Country accent, uptight Ted delivers his cynical take on the world, inspiring plenty of laughter in the audience. Morrie is an excellent foil, a Cockney hairdresser full of anecdotes and stories, his fantastical take on the world a contrast to Ted’s Daily Mail-esque look-out. Both actors perform well in their roles, playing off each other with superb comic timing. Their dynamic leaves the audience wondering how these two very different people became friends, and the nature of their connection is revealed towards the end of the show.
In some respects the show is timeless, a discussion that could be any time from the Fifties until now, though a mention of the year 2009 confirms that the action has been updated from its original 2002 setting. The writing is sharp and funny, as befits the writer of One Man, Two Guvnors, and sometimes surprisingly prescient – as Ted predicts the coming century will utilise direct action as a means of political protest.
The first half of the play had me intrigued: I went in “blind” and was absorbed in trying to work out what was going on. After the interval I thought that the play started to lose its way a bit – until a twist emerged which lent an altogether darker tone to the piece and caused me to re-evaluate everything that had gone before. If I have a criticism, it is that the twist comes as too much of a surprise: I would have preferred a more coherent tone throughout, some hints of the developments to come. That said, I enjoyed this play, more than I had expected to – it isn’t perfect but it’s well worth seeing.