Toast, Richard Bean's 1999 début as a stage writer, was a comic delight based on time-honoured "write about what you know" principles. His follow-up, Mr England showed the same comic skills but was crippled by a state-of-things portentousness. Now The Mentalists, the latest in the "Transformations" season in the National Theatre's newly created Loft space, gets the balance between these two wonderfully right.
In a bland hotel room in Finsbury Park, wiry, edgy Ted and gentle, slightly camp giant Morrie are gathered to shoot a video. It's not porn (although that is Morrie's sideline from his day job as a barber), but a recruiting film for Ted's utopian vision of an ordered, polite society based on the behavioural principles of B.F. Skinner, shunning the psychological approach of "mentalists" like Freud and his heirs, to bring an end to "Crime, pollution, noise, racial conflict, litter, war and TV filth".
Over the course of two hours onstage, it becomes apparent that this vision is all that holds in check Ted's natural London-cabbie-type anger at the state of the world, and it barely does that. Matters escalate, alternating Pinterian banality with a wildly unreal situation.
Through it all Bean manages to retain his twin focus. On the one hand, he shows how much less stressful it is to remake your own perception of the world à la Morrie's stream of made-up tales about his "old Dad" than it is to try to remake the world in your own image – two different kinds of "mentalism". On the other, he simply portrays an enduring odd-couple friendship between two 55-year-old men, rooted in the childhood experiences they shared and transcending their differences of spirit.
Sean Holmes's production is a tiny treat of comic pitch and timing. Michael Feast's Ted is a ferrety little man who can get plausibly worked up about a chipboard-and-veneer hotel room door because, to him, it's not the door he deserves. Duncan Preston as Morrie, effeminate in manner though not in character, is a towering oasis of serenity as Ted repeatedly "goes off on one". (It's a good thing, too, that Preston spends so much time stooped over the video camera, as when he stands upright he makes plain just how little headroom there is on stage in the Loft.) And Bean has found the way he was seeking to comment on the world at large and the individual's place within it, without compromising his considerable gift for comedy.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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