Madness Pervades Stephen Merchant's West End Debut

By James FitzGerald Last edited 38 months ago
Madness Pervades Stephen Merchant's West End Debut ★★★☆☆ 3

Steffan Rhodri and Stephen Merchant in The Mentalists. Photo by Helen Maybanks

Londonist Rating: ★★★☆☆

Modern life is rubbish. Stephen Merchant has seldom strayed far from that message: whether painting the dreary portrait of the dead-end job in The Office, facilitating Karl Pilkington’s misanthropy on both radio and TV, or — more recently — nailing the awkwardness of dating in his American sitcom Hello Ladies.

And now, in The Mentalists, his West End stage debut, Merchant has finally had enough. He plays Ted, a social malcontent of the Basil Fawlty school who seems to have spent far too long immersed in dodgy behavioural psychology. Ted is now setting the world to rights while holed up in a dingy Finsbury Park hotel room in which even the veneer on the door is a source of ire. His indulgent mate Morrie (Steffan Rhodri) is on hand to commit Ted’s rantings to film, for Ted wants to sell — for only £29.99 — his vision of an engineered, utopian society in which everyone does right by one another.

A simple two-hander with only two scenes, the play needs — and receives — a great odd couple, odd enough to obscure the true horror of what’s really happening. For a while, it's unclear what the camera on stage is all about. We understand Morrie specialises in budget pornos and though Merchant is in and out of his suit trousers a lot, might the filming have a more sinister purpose? Aren’t stern, moralistic monologues delivered down the barrel of a camera the preserve of dangerous fanatics?

In the end, the spectacle is really about voyeurism and violence both. Before penning his hit West End farce One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean focused this darker play on the perils of mad self-righteousness — and what a spectacle such a descent may entail. Barmy unreason presents itself at every turn: whether it is Merchant stroppily chucking sandwiches about the hotel room in some characteristic bouts of lanky slapstick, or Morrie offering his pal a scalp massage because Ted has fallen asleep on the District Line and ended up in Barking.

The chuckles are consistent, natural and untaxing, but the longer first scene is meandering and ultimately our star is somewhat too bumbly to carry off fully either mad or messianic.

The Mentalists runs until 26 September at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, WC2H 0DA. Tickets from £9.50 and from £19.50 from 16 July. Londonist saw this performance with a complimentary ticket.  

Last Updated 14 July 2015