Emblazoned across the advertisements for Richard Bean’s revived production of The Mentalists are all the reasons it should be a success. Success it most probably will be, such is the enduring pull of award winning talent. It’s a strange play, however, and one which will have to work harder than One Man and Two Guvnors if cast and crew are to walk away with shining accolades.
Renting a cheap hotel room in Finsbury Park, Ted Oswald (Merchant) plans with the help of best friend Morrie (Rhodri), barber and amateur Porno filmmaker, to video Ted’s Manifesto for a new, cleaner, world order based on the actual behavioural psychology outlined in B F Skinner’s book Auden II. It’s quite a niche work, apparently unreadable according to Bean, but the playwright does well to expound the book’s themes without getting bogged down too much. Nevertheless, the first half drags, and this despite some sharp punch lines.
In fact it feels, at various points, as though the writing wonders in and out of sitcom territory, which, unsurprisingly, is where Merchant seems most comfortable. The longer, frequently mundane chunks of dialogue, characteristic to act one, are where the show loses some of the momentum won by the laughter. And, whilst Merchant plays Ted otherwise with sensitivity, it feels like he never quite escapes his own persona nor the temptation to play for laughs. Ted, for me, isn’t quite convincing which I think has more to do with his manifesto’s convoluted premise and somewhat disjointed character through line than Merchant’s performance.
Not so with Rhodri’s Morrie, who is beautifully imagined, and for whom Rhodri maintains a faultless cockney slur throughout. He is the calming, voice of reason to Ted’s occasional mania and is so effortlessly charming, even whilst delivering his long nostalgic rambles. Where the show becomes clunky, Morrie is a reliable relief.
Happily, Act 2 is a certain improvement and picks up the pace, resolving most of the questions from act one, including how this unlikely pair became or remain friends. Bean seems to save the majority of the drama for the last quarter, in which I discover that he has managed to make me care about this ‘odd couple’; something of a surprise considering the first act. It is a funny show and well worth seeing, not least for the fabulously detailed set, but do expect to do some work to stick with it.