By Richard Bean
Utopia Or Bust
Imagine, if you will, a Finsbury Park bed and breakfast hotel room. It’s a bit grungy, a nylon bedspread on the double bed, a trouser press on one side, a chair looking like it comes from a hospital ward on the other. A TV mounted on the wall, an ensuite bathroom behind a curtain. A phone on the wall, a plate of meat sandwiches covered with cling film and bowl of fruit.
Rather different from the luxury hotel of the Greek finance minister, The Mentalists’ hotel room has no headed notepaper as far as we could tell. Nevertheless a joke about the Greeks seems now to have an added resonance in this 2002 play.
Enter two men. Ted (Stephen Merchant in a respectable stage debut) or “China” to his friend. He’s a boy-scoutish beanpole, skinny legs poking out of long shorts and short sleeved shirt, fleet manager in a cleaning products firm. So far, so ordinary with a raft of credit cards even if they do bounce ... But then there’s his scheme, based on the “radical behaviourism” theory of a (real) dodgy social scientist to correct the world with a Utopian community. That’s if Ted can get at least a thousand people at £29.99 each (!!!).
Morrie (Steffan Rhodri hitting exactly the right reassuring tone) is the camp yet butch Walthamstow hairdresser who has agreed to film a promotional video for his friend. Seemingly more stable, he nevertheless has a side line in porn films and tall tales. Like a fluctuating stock exchange, his imaginary father in one fantasy “was the only British boxer to have boxed at every weight. He could put it on, lose it, and then put it on again. Chips.” But also with material concerns: “Can we sort the money out first China?”
A mini-diversion: have you returned to this blog, lured again by a Twitter or Facebook link and expecting a review in our modestly ;) inimitable style? Then, in a non-hairdressing way, you have been conditioned.
However if you are a stranger who decided to take Google for a walk and the belief ran through your mind spontaneously the premise of our review is attractive, you are an example of mentalism. At least, simply speaking and if we understand correctly, that’s the difference between the behaviourist and the mentalist schools of psychology.
Industrial psychologist turned stand up turned playwright Richard Bean wrote this two hander, as part homage to Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, for a National Theatre festival and there are plenty of gags to keep the laughter coming in this two act one hour and 50 minute piece. At the same time, it feels more gag led than character or plot-based and the production a little over-blown for an intimate fringe-type play. We even wondered at one point if it would have worked better set in California on the fringes of Hollywood.
Nevertheless, amazingly, Bean in this 2002 play, methodically directed by Abbey Wright, seems to have had a magic globe, with Ted mentioning a test drive in Iceland (predicting the 2008 financial crash?) and Morrie Cyprus (2012 financial crash?), followed by the uncanny cracks about the Greeks.
The plot when it does kick in feels rather contrived and goes for far fetched cliché, despite Ted’s plan having (an unmentioned) parallel in real life, the government “nudge nudge” agency
Even so, one could say every audience could conform to behaviourism (“Hey, it’s Stephen Merchant, it’s a Richard Bean play, I will laugh, it will be funny!”) or mentalism (“What the hell, know nothing about this, but at these prices it had better be good!”), so maybe in the end it’s two actors in a play riffing on theories. And then of course we the audience are being experimented on like lab rats or Pavlov’s dog. ;) A TLT mentalist or behaviourist (depending on your school of thought) amber light.