Review – The Mentalists, Wyndham’s Theatre, 26th August 2015

The MentalistsIt’s odd how sometimes you can have a tasty collection of ingredients but when you put them together the result can be half-baked. The Mentalists is a comedy by Richard Bean, creator of such memorable productions like One Man Two Guvnors, The Big Fellah and Great Britain. He also wrote the book for the excellent musical Made in Dagenham. He also wrote Pitcairn, but we can gloss over that. In the role of Ted we have Stephen Merchant, a naturally funny man who can create laughs out of thin air, and whose gangly appearance and self-deprecating humour are a gift for any chat show or stand up routine. It also features Steffan Rhodri, as Morrie, best known as Dave Coaches off Gavin and Stacey, who proves himself to be an assured comedic actor on stage.

I had assumed this was a new play by Mr Bean but in fact it is a revival, the original production having been staged at the National in 2002. That explains why you feel that, although the play is set in the present day, there are some slightly outdated aspects to it. The setting is a seedy hotel room in Finsbury Park, even though Ted wants the outside world to think he’s in Exeter. Richard Kent’s set is delightfully underspecced, consisting of grimy wallpaper and a dismally small TV, and with those hideous floppy brown sliding doors around the ensuite giving the perfect finishing touch to what would be a most disappointing place to spend a night.

Stephen Merchant and Steffan RhodriMessrs Merchant and Rhodri chuck as much life at this play as they possibly can, with excellent comic timing, flawless vocal delivery and a nice sense of the ridiculous. But, oh, the play. It starts promisingly, with the pair turning up at this gloomy hotel, one of them on a mission to do something (what, we don’t know), the other there to help out. We get an amusing insight into Morrie’s life, a serial womaniser and fantasist, making a living by ducking and diving, ostensibly a hairdresser by trade, but primarily by making soft porn videos. Ted, which I presume is short for Tedious, remains something of an enigma, even long into the first act where he is filmed spouting some self-help home-spun philosophy about how to create an Utopia (for £29.99).

Steffan RhodriAt some point during a very dull scene where Ted is churning out this philosophy, I faded out. Then came the interval, with people around me muttering to their companions, “do you understand what’s going on?” I was relieved to hear that they were as confused as I was. The second half isn’t much better, but the story is resolved to the extent that you discover Ted is much more troubled than he appeared to be, and he’s probably going to have a really rotten time after the play is over. There’s a bizarre scene where Morrie, in hairdressing mode, decides to give Ted a shampoo and head massage. At the same time the police are trying to break into the hotel room. Does it sound funny? It isn’t really.

Stephen MerchantThe character of Ted is a right-wing, Mail-reading xenophobe and I found a lot of the “jokes” mildly offensive. The play also takes the subject of mental illness and deals with it in an easy, facile, rather disrespectful manner. Structurally the play is quite weak, with the closing lines of both acts ending on a whimper rather than a bang, so that no one knew whether to applaud or not; and I’m not really surprised it’s closing early. Great performances can’t save a boring text, I’m afraid.

Review – Great Britain, Lyttelton Theatre at the National, 7th July 2014

Great BritainIf ever there was an award for an ironic title, this would have to be a contender. A satire on almost everything that’s wrong with the media in this country, and by extension, everything that’s wrong with the country too. From the very gifted pen of Richard Bean, this is not as laugh-out-loud funny as his One Man Two Guvnors (although few things are), nor is it as richly written as his The Big Fellah (although, again, few things are). But comparisons are odious (and no doubt I’ll make a few more odious comparisons when we see his “Pitcairn” in Chichester later in the year) and this is a very funny, very well performed but very nasty look at the reprehensible goings-on at “The Free Press”, a tabloid rag that got into phone hacking in a big way (this ringing any bells with anyone?)

Billie PiperProbably the most fascinating thing about the production is the secrecy with which it was prepared and rehearsed. The day after the result of the Rebekah Brooks/Andy Coulson trial the National Theatre popped up with a tweet to say that the play would have its first performance on the following Monday. That must be one of the best kept production secrets ever! No doubt, if the play had gone ahead whilst the trial was still continuing it may well have been in contempt of court. Its appearance in the schedules was so sudden that, even as at 7th July, one week after that first performance, programmes had still not been printed yet. We just had the free cast lists to take home with us.

Aaron NeilThe staging is relatively simple with the main set being the offices of the Free Press, but with screens frequently criss-crossing the stage with newspaper headlines projected on them to create other acting areas. The headlines serve to keep the story moving at a fast pace but also have a Brechtian effect of telling you what the scene would be about before it actually happened. Many of the headlines were funny – but I got the feeling that the production slightly over-relied on them. The Daily Wail (sic) “Immigrants do something detrimental to society” headlines started off as funny but went on a bit long – we got the picture. Grant Olding’s music cunningly works to increase tension and suspense in certain scenes, very much like a movie soundtrack.

Harriet ThorpeWhy do I describe this play as nasty? Because it’s populated with vile people who get up to vile practices to serve only themselves and the lining of their own pocket. They may hide behind a veneer of giving the public what they want, but that is a mere excuse for their behaviour. As you might guess, I’m not a friend of the tabloid press. Nothing they write can be trusted, no sneakiness is too underhand for their modus operandi, and they wield too much political power. It doesn’t matter who says what in the run-up to a general election, the winning party will always be the one that the Sun backs. And I don’t believe the editorial team at the Sun spend days analysing all the parties’ manifesti, weighing the pros and the cons, seeking out independent verification of facts and statistics, to come up with a well-balanced political verdict. No. It will be the party with the most effective mutual back-scratching potential where it comes to the newspaper “getting away with it”.

Jo DockeryYou can laugh during the show as you recognise the devious press tactics – indeed you can relate them to real-life incidents that are already well documented – but on the whole it’s the laughter of recognition, of “ah yes, that’s very clever”, rather than laughter at something that’s intrinscally funny. Personally, I didn’t and couldn’t laugh at the despicably prejudiced insults of the Finance journo Ellerington towards the solicitor Wendy Klinkard, who happens to be of restricted growth (and thus played by an actress of similar height), inventive though they were. The destruction caused by the phone hacking in the cases of Stella, the dying anorexic topless model, and Kieron Mills, accused of murdering his twin daughters, have your heart in your mouth as you watch their ghastly impact unfold. Because Richard Bean is a brilliant writer and he has a cast of amazing actors, there is certainly a lot to laugh at; and then it sticks in your throat as you realise you need a sanity check to laugh at some of that material. Alan Ayckbourn is the master of that skill – with one tiny line or little plot twist he can reveal a lifetime’s insight. But in this play you laugh, and then you just feel dirty for having done so. I’m probably coming over as too PC – too Guardian reader and not sufficiently News of the World (for yes! The Free Press is the NOTW in thin disguise) but no minority section of the community is spared from ridicule to some degree. In my head, I’ve kind of moved on from the 70s.

Kiruna StamellMaybe that makes me not the ideal person to see this play. I come with my preconceived ideas about made-up headlines and journalistic malpractice, and I see on the stage precisely what I would have expected to see. I found myself asking whether for all its biting satire this play was actually telling us anything we didn’t already know. I suspected that, alongside all its cleverness, it didn’t. We know these journos are governed by greed. We know they trample over little people in order to secure their story. We know that the truth is a side issue where it comes to writing their copy. I’d already guessed that someone like Paige Britain, the news editor at the heart of the story, would have to be personally both very charismatic and completely without scruples in order to be successful at their job.

The story certainly does have a good momentum, as error leads to tragedy and stupidity grows into evil. Structurally I felt that the play started as a fantasy on how to edit a newspaper at gutter level, but as it and its editorial team sink deeper and deeper into the mire, by the time Act Two comes along it’s no longer fantasy – it’s real. The play is a full-on parody of the News of the World’s demise, and you can recognise the real life equivalents in the fictional characters and plot development. For every “is your vicar on Gaydar” story there’s an allusion to a Milly Dowler or a Madeleine McCann which makes for uncomfortable watching that’s hard to laugh at. But the journalists are intent on their practice and so blunder on ruthlessly with their usual self-confidence. Actually there is a nice throwaway scene where one of the team suggests Jimmy Savile is a paedophile and the others all dismiss it as arrant nonsense, showing that even within a team of big-headed callous reprobates, they don’t know everything.

Oliver ChrisOn the plus side, I liked how the play shows quite how cap-in-hand senior politicians – Prime Ministers even – might behave with editors and proprietors; especially if they’ve got something to hide. If the ex-IRA proprietor of the paper wants the PM to do something, he gets it. If he knows an awkward secret about him, he gets it even quicker. In this play, there’s no question as to who is the most powerful person in the country. There’s probably a lot of truth in the portrayal of a leading politician essentially being blackmailed by a paper if they’ve caught him with his pants down.

Robert GlenisterThe play is at its strongest when it shows just how thoroughly useless some people at the top can be. When the editor at the Free Press is replaced with new blood in the form of Virginia White, much to the dismay of most of the staff, she proves herself to be aloof and only interested in her own pet subjects and projects. Watching this play I had absolutely no doubt at all that Virginia White/Rebekah Brooks (even the hair is the same, and she’s married to a soap star) had no idea whatsoever that phone hacking was taking place. She was too stupid to see it under her nose – or too clever to look for it; either way she’s useless. Even more of an intelligence void, Police Commissioner Sully Kassam is the most inept leader imaginable, expressing every thought so badly, and making the worst possible decision every step of the way, so much so that some gifted youtuber creates rap videos of his best gaffes. He’s also the worst cover-up merchant you could imagine, trying to claim his civil partnership with Maurice is still strong whilst loudly taking calls from his lover Bryn at the same time. He couldn’t cover up a blister with Germolene. You do hear of people being promoted beyond their sphere of ability – here’s a man to whom it has happened de luxe. When you realise that the people at the top are frequently dopes, a lot of the crap that happens underneath them makes sense.

Rupert VansittartAs in “One Man Two Guvnors”, the central character constantly addresses the audience, commenting on the other characters and also confronting us with our prejudices and chucking them back in our faces. Billie Piper turns in a fantastic performance as the arch-manipulatrix Paige Britain, parking all sensibilities to one side so that she can get a scoop, not remotely concerned about the carnage in her wake, and doing it all so glamorously and provocatively, that it’s not remotely surprising she gets away with it. Personally I found the character utterly repellent, but Miss Piper carries you along with her, so that when she justifies her bad behaviour, you’re complicit in what she does. She’ll never go down without a fight, and she doesn’t care who with. Mr Bean’s vision of Great Britain is complete at the end when Paige is rewarded for her “distinguished” career by having a successful chat show on American TV. Can you think of any other tabloid editors who have enjoyed great success with a TV chat show?

William ChubbThe whole diverse cast give very entertaining and convincing performances. I particularly liked Robert Glenister as the offensively quick-witted and wide-boy-confident editor Wilson – Kelvin MacKenzie to a Tee. Jo Dockery is great as the butter-wouldn’t-melt Virginia White, horrified that the police are raiding the offices and shocked at her staff – rather like a posh mother dealing with the discovery her public school kids are playing truant. Her innocent cry, “what have we done?!” brings the house down. Oliver Chris is the essentially kind and no-nonsense Assistant Commissioner who gets drawn into Paige’s web beyond his ability to retain his integrity; Rupert Vansittart excellent as the flawed Tory leader with an open fly; and there’s great support from William Chubb, Kiruna Stamell and Harriet Thorpe. But the star for me was Aaron Neil as bungling Police Commissioner Kassam, who stole every scene he was in, and who created, with the help of Mr Bean’s splendid lines for him, one of the most genuinely stupid oafs I have ever seen in a play.

I liked this play – but not as much as I expected to or wanted to. It’s a very good play but it could have been a great one. Its subject matter is so grim that you feel you need to take a shower afterwards. Fortunately the cast play it with such zest and wit that it’s impossible not to enjoy to some extent – and your own acceptance of the tabloid press may well determine your own enjoyment level. Within a couple of days of tickets being on sale it had already secured its post NT run at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, just like “One Man” did. With such a hot potato as its story line, I predict a great success.

Review – One Man Two Guvnors, New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, 22nd October 2011

One Man Two GuvnorsWe booked this on 26th May because the word coming out of the National Theatre was that this was a smasheroony. Five months on and you don’t need me to tell you this is a fantastically funny show with some extraordinary feats of physical comedy. It already boasts a great reputation, and its West End transfer is assured of success. It’s not perfect – but so refreshingly laugh inducing that it doesn’t matter.

Written by Richard Bean (whose The Big Fellah I thought was the best new play of last year), it’s an adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 Commedia dell’Arte based “Servant of Two Masters”. It’s now set in Brighton in 1963, amongst a criminal underworld of petty thieves and villains getting bumped off. The plot is highly silly but highly entertaining, totally incredible and so enjoyable that you’re completely happy to suspend all reasonable disbelief. It’s a script full of character, chock full with hilarious happenings and good jokes, and I reckon it deserves to earn Mr Bean enough to retire on (although let’s hope he doesn’t).

James CordenJames Corden’s central performance is astonishingly athletic for a big chap. He plays Francis Hensall, who blunders his way into working for two guvnors who must remain a secret from each other; but of course he confuses their jobs and this leads him up all sorts of farcical garden paths. With terrific comic timing, and a super rapport with the audience whom he both takes into his confidence but also hoodwinks too, he’s simply a joy to watch. At times he appears to come out of character and address the audience directly as himself, in a manner I haven’t seen since the good old days of Eric Sykes and Jimmy Edwards in Big Bad Mouse (if you go back that far). This is very nicely subversive of standard theatrical practice, and feels very refreshing.

Oliver ChrisThe final scene before the interval will probably go down in history as one of the most hilarious ever seen on stage. Suffice it to say, not everything is at seems, but it culminates in one of the most astonishing coups de theatre you’re ever likely to witness. Of the three apparent interactions with members of the audience, throughout the whole play, I’m pretty sure only one is 100% genuine, If You Get My Drift. But it’s all carried off with amazing aplomb, that you only admire James Corden’s performance the more for it.

Daniel RigbyHe has excellent support from a gifted company of comic actors. Oliver Chris is excellent as one of his guvnors, Stanley, an ineffectual toff using posh expletives but who can be a thug when he wants. I also loved the performance of Daniel Rigby as Alan, the wannabe actor fiancé of Claire Lams’ Pauline, the thick daughter of local gangland boss Charlie. Claire LamsHis pompous posing makes such an effective contrast with the cockney vagabonds around him, and her innocent stupidity is another great comic element. And then you have the scene stealing performance of Tom Edden as Alfie, the ancient waiter, whose hands seem to have become detached from his arms and whose entire physical presence is a ridiculous delight. If you thought Julie Walters’ “two soups” waitress was past it, you’ve seen nothing yet!

Tom EddenTo be honest, the whole cast puts heart and soul into it and there isn’t a weak link. On the matinee performance we saw, Fred Ridgeway, as Charlie, seemed to corpse in almost every scene, so that when other actors came on stage to join in they tended to be thrown of course by his apparent inability to stay calm! Naturally, this only added to the general hilarity.

Fred RidgewayMy only gripe – and it’s minor – is that the music that runs through the show slightly puts the brakes on the activity. The performance starts with the (very enjoyable) skiffle group doing four songs, concert style. Whilst I appreciate it can take a while for everyone to settle down (and it takes an inordinate amount of time at the Alex in Birmingham to get from street to seat) I did feel it was too much. When the fourth song started I asked Mrs Chrisparkle if she thought the show was ever going to get going. The group also sings while the staging is getting changed between scenes. Sometimes, cast members join the group for eccentric solos, which is very funny, but I still felt it made the whole thing a little less fluid than it could be. Very minor gripe though.

This is definitely, as they used to say, going to run and run. A top notch comedy performed by a dream team. I don’t envy the producers’ problem of recasting once this lot have had enough.

Review – The Big Fellah, Out of Joint, Royal & Derngate Northampton, 7th September

Big FellahIt’s not often that I’m motivated to react this quickly in the blog to something I’ve seen. Normally I wait a few days, let it cogitate and lie fallow. But my brain is bubbling over as a result of this play to the extent that, in the words of Cat Stevens, I can’t keep it in, I gotta let it out.

1972. An IRA cell in New York. Huge funds are being successfully raised at classy dinner events. A safe house is established. The Big Fellah is in charge, although only carrying out orders from afar. There are already loyal workers to the cause; a new man is recruited. It’s really easy to say too much about the plot and I won’t do so, because I want every one of you to go and see it for yourselves over the next few months in Northampton, Bury St Edmunds, Lyric Hammersmith, Oxford, Southampton, York and Birmingham. Suffice it to say, the story develops over thirty or so years and works its way through to a thoroughly believable conclusion.

The first thing that struck me about this play was the power of its writing. Here you have some characters that, if you read about them in the newspaper, you would probably be pleased if they got their come-uppance. Richard Bean brings them to life with apparently effortless ease. They are totally credible, realistic, and above all ordinary people like you and me. So when something devastating happens to a couple of them, you really feel it. I was almost in tears just before the interval. And like ordinary people, they are also, at times, very very funny. The first ten minutes after the interval was one of the funniest sequences I’ve seen between two male characters since early Stoppard. Yet when this sequence ends, it ends with some shivering onstage violence – physical, mental, and threatened. A big man humbled and degraded. It quite took my breath away.

I don’t normally do “post show talks” but this time both Mrs Chrisparkle and I thought it would be complementary to the play. This is partly because she didn’t “get” the end. I did. She feels it’s a flaw in the production that she didn’t get it. She thinks I got it because I looked at the dates. Shan’t say any more, nuff said. The author Richard Bean explained his motivation for writing the play, and I don’t think on reflection he actually achieved what he set out to do, but in fact probably wrote something else much more significant. I know I run the risk of not making any sense if you haven’t seen the play. Go and see it to discover it for yourself.

The director, Max Stafford-Clark, was also at the post show talk, and I was fascinated to see and hear him in real life, being this Colossus of avant-garde theatre since the 1970s. In answer to a question about how he generally directed the play, he explained that they went the Full Stanislavsky Monty. The cast did workshops, improvisations, motivational scenes, went back into the characters’ pasts, played around with the text, and loads of really interesting stuff. They gave us some examples by doing a couple of short scenes from the play differently, and they were very revealing. Rory KeenanAnd boy did this approach to the text pay dividends, because this cast were as ensemble a bunch as you could possibly witness, every word being intelligently, thoughtfully and often hilariously delivered. I’m not going to single out anyone for a special praise. Oh well maybe I will – Rory Keenan as his namesake Ruairi was for me the complete highlight, although maybe that’s because Richard Bean gave his character the best lines.

Mrs Chrisparkle was slightly concerned about the accents of some of the cast. The magic of the theatre wiped that away for me, if there were any dubious accents I didn’t notice them. But she’s normally right on this kind of thing.

Only now, almost twelve hours after seeing it, did an extra aspect to the denouement occur to me – that the last person to die (we suppose) in this story would have been thought of as a hero pretty much universally. Terrorism – what goes around, comes around.

If I did stars, this would be a Five. Carlsberg don’t do plays, but if they did….