Richard Bean has become one of our best and most prolific playwrights - a regular at the Royal Court (where he first came to prominence with plays like Under the Whaleback and Toast, Hampstead, Almeida and (under Nick Hytner) the National, capped by the London and Broadway success of One Man Two Guvnors, as well as the audacious 'secret' play of Great Britain, which opened at the National just days after Rebekah Brooks's trial ended with her acquittal but provided a heavily fictionalised version of the phone hacking events that she was accused of.
Given his current standing, I'm not surprised that producers are now drawing on his back catalogue, with Toast recently revived at the Park. But the two-hander 2002 The Mentalists is hardly top-drawer Bean, and is the sort of thing I'd have expected to see revived at the smaller studio spaces at either the Park or the Southwark Playhouse, not one of the West End's most prestigious, heavily booked theatres.
Nor, frankly, at the whopping prices they're inevitably charging there: up to £96.75 a ticket for a play with just two actors that runs for less than two hours! I'm sure the characters in the play itself would be unimpressed, especially since they're essentially unimpressed by most things in life — not least the dismal little hotel room they're fetched up in at Finsbury Park, where one of them is helping the other to film a promotional video for an idea he has to create an alternative sort of community.
That community, I'm assuming, would eschew the kind of profligate waste of money that seeing it at these prices would represent. And it's hardly buying a pair of stars, frankly, that are must-see celebrities, like Bradley Cooper currently is in The Elephant Man, in their own right: Stephen Merchant, co-creator of TV's The Office and Extras, and Steffan Rhodri, a more regular stage presence, are both perfectly affable company (even when their characters sometimes are not), but that's hardly a compelling reason to see them in this slight, troubling play.
They play old friends who've been through a lot together; today that friendship is being put to the test again in ways that are unexpected for both of them. One may have gone a bit far — no, not may, rather has. To say more would be to spoil the show's sole surprise.
The two actors acquit themselves respectably in the circumstances — but they're pushing the play up a hill and it never quite reaches a summit of laughter or sufficient disturbance to be something else.
"As a diverting summer filler, a small play starring a tall theatrical novice, this is well worth a look. It needs no bean-counter, to observe, though, that it would be the height of insanity to price out the target audience."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"Bean extracts a lot of mileage from the comedy of ineptitude... the fine Merchant-Rhodri chemistry convinces you that this is a double act that goes a long way into a childhood that the despised “mentalists” might want to dwell upon."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"It all makes for a strange evening. I like Bean’s play and have no quarrel with Abbey Wright’s production. But what might make a perfect small-scale show comes equipped with a needless interval and the false expectations aroused by the presence of a popular comic dipping his toe into the icy waters of straight acting."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"... has a few moments of distinctly English mirth but it is a slight offering – a half-hour skit stretched to almost two hours with interval ..."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail