Sometimes it’s nice to see a play at the end of its run. I’m quite a Richard Bean fan and thought Great Britain, particularly after Lucy Punch supplanted Billie Piper, was sharp and savagely funny and also believe that, with its longevity and ability to survive multiple cast and venue changes, that One Man Two Guvnors has become a modern classic. I’m only sorry that Carlo Goldoni, who penned my first school play (at 11, in a Pompadour wig and white bridal gown I was an ‘arresting’ Rosaura Balanzoni in The Liar according to the school mag – no wonder the boy grew up gay) is too long dead to share the credit and the royalties.
But The Mentalists is immediately intriguing: a fleet manager for a cleaning firm hires a dingy hotel room to make what first looks like a porn tape but turns out to be a campaign video and call-to-arms for followers of a New Society, based on the philospophies of American psychologist B F Skinner. Skinner followed Pavlov and his dogs in pioneering applied behaviourism, and the way it’s simply demonstrated in a winking-then-slapping routine by Stephen Merchant and Steffan Rhodri is one of the most beautifully expressive passages in the play. This structure is no stranger than Equus where the actions of the horse-blinding boy are tested against the behavioural theories of R D Laing.
Merchant’s character has come across a copy of Skinner’s utopian novel ‘Walden Two‘, written the same year as Orwell’s 1984 but from a more optimistic if controlled vision of the future. He takes too literally Skinner’s idea of dissolving the nuclear family by planning to kill them and stage his own suicide, but his envisioning of a ‘better’ society follows actual attempts to implement Skinner’s idealised communities in the USA and Mexico.
Since Bean’s play was first scripted in 2002 it pre-dates Extras‘ television popularity and whilst you can see how it could appeal to a thoughtful actor like Merchant, unfortunately it shoots way over the heads of his legion of young fans who exhibit initial wild enthusiasm at seeing him (and that bloke from Gavin and Stacey) on stage, followed about thirty minutes later by blinking bemusement interspersed with sudden and happy reactions to the low-flying gags which they can ‘get’. Nobody ever lost money overestimating the intelligence of an audience, but underestimating their attention span is probably why this piece is closing a month early.
Being too late for any press night, I passed the theatre when it had a sign out saying ’50 seats available daily for £10′. At gone 6pm they hadn’t taken the sign in, so I stepped up to the box office where two assistants and a manager were on duty and asked if they had any ‘day seats’ left. Lots of eye swivelling to check and she had to ask the manager which one from the seat plan she could give out but I quickly secured an excellent the third row Stalls, nominally £59.50. So I’m sure it’s a case that if you’re brave enough to ask, even just before showtime, and they’re not sold out, they’ll do it …
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