The current West End production of Richard Bean’s The Mentalists is closing early at the Wyndham’s Theatre by almost a month. The ‘star’ cast (Stephen Merchant and Steffan Rhodri), 50 £10 day seats at every performance and success of the playwright have not been able to make this production a hit, instead earning mixed reviews and rumours of audience capacity being in single figures for some performances. Indeed, it was worrying when Merchant was doing the press for the play that he admitted not fully reading the play before agreeing to do it, thus refusing to do the (admittedly unnecessary) naked scenes. It was also noticeable that many of the reviews mentioned the high ticket prices (some around £100) for a play that was effectively played on the landing to the Lyttleton Theatre (the Loft) in the early 2000s in a design to attract new and young audiences.
The play itself is fine. Two best friends Ted and Morrie meet in a North London hotel room with the task of filming a campaign video for Ted’s idea of founding a cult which advertises Utopia. In actual fact it’s probably just based on the idea of ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ and allows for Ted to scam some people of their money. Morrie, meanwhile, is a more down-to-earth character: a hairdresser with an alluring libido and a knack for stories that put him akin to Gavin and Stacey’s Nessa (played by Ruth Jones with Rhodri playing her partner Dave). In the second scene (no acts as such in this play text) it is revealed that Ted has a sinister, murderous (literally) secret which ends with the police surrounding the hotel and kicking the door down.
It may not be as high tempo as One Man, Two Guvnors or Great Britain or England People Very Nice but it is an early Bean that shows his skills at funny dialogue and intriguing characters in insular places.
The play is surely cheap to run: a two-hander with a couple of stage hands to kick the door down surely. There are no scene changes or massive effects required. The costumes were surely cheap even if the actors that inhabit them weren’t. And the play has a playwright with good form, the producers digging up one of his early plays hoping it will make good West End material. It has an experienced stage actor who impressed very much in Posh, and a mildly popular TV actor/ writer/ stand-up making his West End debut. So what went wrong? Maybe it was a mixture of high ticket prices, an unknown play, a cast which perhaps doesn’t quite appeal to either regular theatregoers or fans of The Office, etc. and mixed reactions, both critically and word-of-mouth.
But the producers were right (in my opinion) in giving a Richard Bean play a go thinking it would be a hit. So what other of his plays could do well in the commercial sector? Maybe another one of his early plays? Something more farcical? An adaptation? Something new? Let’s take a look:
Toast (1999) was his first professionally-staged play is set in a Northern bread factory in the 1970s. With the factory at threat, so are the workers’ livelihoods. Under the Whaleback (2003) is set in three fishing vessels throughout recent history, from a rocky trip, mid-storm to an inert present-day museum piece. Harvest (2005) is a momentous play charting roughly 90 years of one pig farm and its owners from pre-WW1 to present day. All three share northern meticulously detailed settings, big characters akin to Johnny Rooster Byron and a sense of nostalgia and lamenting over the decline of English, northern, working class industries. Of the three, Toast is perhaps the best choice for a transfer. The Park Theatre’s production starring Matthew Kelly is out on tour next year and so could come in to London. It (as is Under the Whaleback) is a detailed study of male friendships relationships.
If The Big Fellah (2010), The Heretic (2011) and The English Game (2008) are not your cup of tea and you prefer something more farcical, then Smack Family Robinson (2003, revised 2013) and In The Club (2007) might remind you more of One Man, Two Guvnors. Smack Family Robinson is about a crooked family, brought together and thrown apart by love and what they do for a living. There are some very funny bits of irony, uses of societal nostalgia and likeable caricatures. But (perhaps like Mike Exton’s Barking in Essex) the comedy doesn’t really get going as it does in Frayn’s Noises Off. In The Club, however, is a fast-paced farce, with jokes and visual gags aplenty. Its setting of a Strasbourg hotel and cast of incompetent EU politician characters is also highly resonant and speaks to audiences disenfranchised with current politics. But, like many farces, it sometimes goes too far. An ambitious play, nonetheless, though.
From Boucicault to Mamet, Bean has been involved with many adaptations, the Goldini one (One Man, Two Guvnors after The Servant of Two Masters) being the most successful. Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid is a funny French farce. Miles Malleson’s translation is poetically written but perhaps a bit fussy too. Richard Bean, however, has tightened the play and turned it into The Hypochondriac, which had a successful run at the Almeida in 2005 and in Bath last year. (I would’ve seen that if it transferred over Hay Fever). Finally, there is The Count of Monte Christo. It was supposed to be on at the National Theatre over Christmas a few years ago (remember?) but was pulled when an early draft was decided to be not quite ready. It was replaced by Pinero’s The Magistrate but was published earlier this year. Perhaps this could get staged somewhere?
Despite the early closure of The Mentalists, Richard Bean is in demand. He apparently has two plays lined up for Hull in 2017 for city of culture celebrations, a play about snooker for The Crucible, Sheffield, next year, a play lined for Matthew Warchus at the Old Vic and is said to be interested in writing about the recent FIFA scandal. Whether any of these plays could work in the West End is another matter. After all, some said that Great Britain lost its impact once it transferred. But, I for one certainly look forward to future productions of his plays.