The first thing I noticed as Stephen Merchant burst on to stage was how many seats were empty. I had almost an entire row to myself. Considering this was the first Saturday night this comedy from Richard Bean had played on the West End it was, remarkably, undersold. Perhaps this is a consequence of the pricing strategy which has been criticised in the press. Direct from the theatre a top price ticket will set you back near £100, although cheaper tickets are available. Considering this play lasts 1 hour and 40 minutes (including a 15 minute interval) how much value for money are you really getting?
Not a lot I’m afraid.
The first act sets the scene, Ted and Morrie have checked in to a dingy hotel somewhere in Finsbury Park. The set design, although basic, perfectly captures the bleak and cheap hotel ambience that anyone who has ever stayed in one will immediately recognise. Morrie has his video camera to record Ted, we don’t know why but enough suggestion is crudely levelled for us to realise it’s not going to be what we’re supposed to think. The whole first act follows this trend, vague set ups that don’t quite make sense and added together leave you rather bewildered at what’s going on.
This play is a comedy, and people did laugh, though they weren’t rolling about the aisles. The laughs, I feel, were forced and came more from the audiences’ love of Stephen Merchant rather than the jokes being actually funny. At several points throughout the show a few people would laugh awkwardly unsure if they’d actually heard a joke but thought they should laugh – just in case.
Despite being a two hander, the dialogue did not flow like conversation; it was much more like a stand up show with punchlines and set ups delivered directly to the audience with blatant heavy handed emphasis. Both characters had decent monologues, the longest reserved for Merchant but I found myself glazing over, the material just wasn’t funny enough.
The title ‘The Mentalists’ is reference to a school of thought in Psychology and as such a number of psychological terms make their way in to the dialogue. Yet even this is done almost half-heartedly. If you googled top ten psychology terms you’d find them all interspersed to the plays dialogue with no real thought or meaning behind them.
At one point Ted teaches Morrie about Pavlovs dogs, it’s quite amusing, if not incredibly accurate. But other shows have done this better, even the American sitcom ‘The Big Bang Theory’ managed to get it funny and, more importantly, correct.
After a short 40 minutes it was the interval and I was left quite confused by the plot, it was obvious it has been done deliberately but was frustrating none the less.
Act Two opens with a cheap shot at the Scots, quickly followed by one about the Greeks. I never saw the original production 13 years ago so I’m unsure if this was in the original script or added in to exploit the complex political situations in both countries for an easy laugh. It felt, uncomfortably, like it was the latter. Any Scots or Greeks in the audience needn’t have taken too much offence, as to follow were some off the cuff remarks about the Turks, the Cypriots and even the Romans. In a rather lazy conclusion to this superfluous section it’s decided that Europe as a whole should bear the brunt of the joke.
Eventually, many of the plot holes start to be explained, but as the act lasts less than an hour they are fired off at such a rapid rate that it feels like a list is being ticked off, just doing enough to make sure everything is covered -but nothing more.
The second act spends so much of its limited time sewing up the plot from Act One there is no time to spend exploring the underlying theme of this play, mental illness. It’s all rather abruptly brushed under the carpet. Perhaps this is intended to be commentary on modern day society but realistically it’s a wasted opportunity.
The play feels lazy and lacks imagination, almost as if it had been written hastily on a rainy afternoon. I felt like I’d gone to the shops for a pint of milk, came home with four full carrier bags but, alas, without the milk.
Stephen Merchant and Steffan Rhodri both give excellent performances despite the lacking material. In particular, Stephen Merchant at the point when his scheme begins to unravel and we see his world collapse in on itself.
If you are a fan of Stephen Merchant and can find some decently priced tickets then this won’t be a bad night out. If, on the other hand, you have £100 to spend on a theatre ticket then there is far better on the West End, and even off West End, to spend your money on.