Tag Archives: Wyndham’s Theatre

‘The Mentalists’ starring Stephen Merchant and Steffan Rhoddri: a review

9 Jul

I’m a huge fan of Stephen Merchant, and have been for years.  His talent shines through as a writer that is acutely able to explore humour in what are often dark and uncomfortable situations.  I loved The Office (although who doesn’t?), Extras and Hello Ladies, an incredibly underrated show and a huge mismatch for the US audience.  I love his repartee with Karl Pilkington (a comic genius in my books) and Ricky Gervais, and I have often spent hours listening to old podcasts and radioshows with the three of them chatting about nothing much in particular.  That’s not to say that Stephen Merchant’s work has been solidly top-notch, though – Life’s Too Short, for example, lacked substance and that was due in part to sloppy writing and a main character, played by Warwick Davis, who just wasn’t funny.

Anyway, I’m going off on a tangent to say that when I got tickets for The Mentalists, a play written by Richard Bean, and stars Stephen Merchant and Steffan Rhodri, I was excited and preparing myself for a night of laughs.   This was a mistake on my own part.  I hadn’t researched the play properly and assumed it would be full of Merchant-like humour, but I later realised that the humour is much simpler and less faceted, which makes sense as Bean wrote One Man, Two Guvnors, a play that attracted huge audiences in London but I found to be quite boring and greatly overrated.  (Incidentally, if it is slapstick and farcical comedy you want, Michael Frayn’s Noises Off is hilarious). This is Merchant’s first real acting gig, in other words, so don’t expect a play-like adaptation of his own work.

stephen merchant

The Mentalists is a play centred around two characters, Ted (played by Merchant) and Morrie (played by Rhodri).  It is set in a dingy Finsbury Park hotel, and the main objective for them meeting there is for Morrie to film Ted talking into the camera to the public about the need to form a utopian society.  I felt that Merchant did a good job at conveying Ted’s obsessive, frustrated nature and his manic behaviour, as he would jump from anger to excitement to seeking reassurance from Morrie.  Rhodri was good as Morrie, the seedy hairdresser who would make wild fantasies up about his family, making it even more poignant when we learn that neither character knew their parents and both grew up together in the care system.  The acting was good but the play itself was flawed.  I liked the fact that it touched upon some dark themes – indeed, in the second half, the play took a disturbing but comic turn, which I felt was refreshing and avoided the sentimentality I felt was present in the first half.  That said, the dialogue was overly repetitive at times which sometimes meant it was difficult to keep engaged.  In addition, whilst the backgrounds of the characters did make them slightly more endearing to the audience, I wasn’t rooting for either of them, so when the events took a darker turn at the end, I found there to be a lack of suspense.  There were bursts of humour scattered throughout the play, and while there were some laugh-out-loud moments, much of the humour seemed to fall quite flat with the audience.

Merchant performed as a ‘proper actor’ despite some stammering and fluffing up of the lines, which is probably to be expected given how dialogue-heavy the play is and the fact that we went on the second night.  That said, I feel he really holds his own when he writes and acts in his own work, and that is something I look forward to seeing more of in the future.

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View From the Bridge at Wyndham’s Theatre: a review/ rant

12 Apr

On Friday I went to see the highly acclaimed performance of Arthur Miller’s ‘View from the Bridge’, directed by the Ivo van Hove and starring Mark Strong, of ‘The Imitation Game’ and ‘Before I go to sleep’ fame.  I had purposely avoided reading the reviews in depth but even so, it was impossible to be oblivious to the hype around this adaptation.  As a huge Arthur Miller fan and someone who has studied the play in the past, I was pretty confident sitting in my seat waiting for the performance to start that I was going to see something pretty special.

Let’s just say, I should know by now not to believe the theatre critics as I was sorely disappointed.

viewfromthebridge

Van Hove’s numerous techniques to add dramatic effect did not stop with the stark, minimalist set, but included overly long pauses punctuated with a beeping noise to heighten tension, and a scene at the end where the stage directions are read out as the scene is being played out.  Rather than add drama, though, these served only to irritate and distract from the intrinsic drama unfolding in the scenes.   Yes, the play is a tragedy but van Hove’s decision to make everything overly dramatic from the beginning resulted in a conflict and denouement that was less so – the time when the play is at its most dramatic.

Before watching this play, I was unfamiliar with Strong and his work.  Whilst technically his acting was fine, I felt he did not seem to embody the character of Eddie Carbone – the “every” man with flaws and vulnerabilities.  Firstly, Strong seemed – well, too strong, especially given that he was supposed to be physically weaker than Marco.   Perhaps this is entirely subjective but I had always pictured Eddie as someone who is distinctly normal looking – he is a longshoreman with a loving wife and he likes to go bowling.  He finds Rodolpho (who, along with Marco, just arrive to America “off the boat” yet both actors assume American accents) or anyone who isn’t as ‘normal’ as him strange because he isn’t used to anyone else.  In the play, I imagined him to appear approachable and friendly, the kind of harmless man who is liked by everyone in his neighbourhood.  I didn’t feel that Strong embodied this persona and this ‘normality’ is exactly what endears Eddie Carbone to the audience.  It is vital in a play that encourages the audience to empathise and question humanity.

I really disliked the portrayal of Katy, played by Phoebe Fox.  In the play, Katy is supposed to be a young woman, nearly eighteen, who has been overprotected and indulged by Eddie Carbone.  Her burgeoning womanhood mixed with her “Daddy issues”, and Eddie’s repressed and confused feelings about his niece are simmering away in the play with increasing intensity until the climax and tragedy unfolds.  The production, however, completely disregarded any idea of subtlety and had Katy practically straddling Eddie and sitting around with her legs spread open in the first scene.   In addition to this, Fox’s erratic portrayal of Katy was, quite frankly, bewildering – her combination of mumbling, shouting and running around with her underwear exposed made her seem like she suffered from some sort of hyperactive disorder.

Even despite everything I’ve said, I did find myself a little moved in the second act but that is credit to Miller’s exceptional writing rather than the production itself.  As my sister’s boyfriend remarked, the end scene with its dramatic music and pouring blood is reminiscent of a scene in the cult 90s movie, Blade, and perhaps that would have been more entertaining.  I should remember to say (despite my frustrations) that Mark Strong as Eddie Carbone and Nicola Walker as Beatrice Carbone delivered solid, worthy performances but ultimately I came away feeling frustrated and disappointed.