Richard Bean, the country’s most bankable playwright, knocks out a new script every four months. Thanks to the success of One Man, Two Guvnors, he’s not short of houses ready to stage his work. And the hunt for treasure in his back-catalogue continues. The Mentalists, from 2002, stars Stephen Merchant (co-writer of The Office) and Steffan Rhodri as two needy chums pursuing a whimsical dream in a cheap hotel room. Chum One is a hairdresser who makes porn films on the side. Chum Two is a salesman who dreams of founding a rebel colony overseas. Chum One films Chum Two delivering a sermon that will kick-start the revolution. That, ladies and gentlemen, is about it.
Both players are as likeable as kittens romping on pink cushions and Abbey Wright’s direction meets the quality of the script. Bean has wisely adopted Alan Ayckbourn’s ruse of planting two sure-fire gags at the top of each act to enforce the idea that the play is a comedy. In truth it’s a dippy Pinteresque melodrama about male outcasts finding friendship as a substitute for family. Their lowbrow routines are enjoyable enough. There’s a complex visual gag about shoelessness which is executed faultlessly. Ditto the door veneer gag, set up in the opening lines and duly completed at the close. If you want shoelessness and veneer jokes, you won’t find better ones in the West End. But the storyline curdles towards sunset. One of the pals, in a lengthy aside, describes the perfect felony. Here’s what you do. Murder a vagrant, dump the petrol-soaked corpse at the scene of the crime, throw in a burning taper and whoosh, the flames consume everything as you escape undetected. Thanks for that, and now back to the colony plot. But one of the chums declares that the ‘perfect crime’ is a watertight project. How about a spontaneous killing spree? This converts an amusing meditation on cult leadership into a grisly comedy about mass murder. The fluffy-wuffy characters don’t suit this homicidal twist and the dialogue lacks the necessary emotional resources to make the leapfrog credible. So what happened there? My guess is that Bean ran out of puff mid-script, bolted on a farcical ending, typed ‘Curtain. The End’, and started a brand new play. Not that it matters. This Popsicle will take up very little of your time and even less of your brain-power.
Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s campaigning play, The Invisible, analyses the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) which in 2012 reduced the scope of legal aid. Lawyers argue that Laspo creates a class of ‘invisible’ victims permanently denied the justice they deserve. Lenkiewicz seeks to promote this view with a play set in a penniless London law firm. Four cases are presented for our consideration.
Most deserving is a Pakistani bride imported to Southall by a callous mummy’s boy who expects her to fulfil the wifely roles of cook, cleaner, bun-oven and punchbag. She flees his violence and receives the help she needs. Well done, legal aid. But her case raises a wider question. Should the UK feel obliged to reform Asia’s marital culture by taking every doomed partnership, case by case, through the English courts? Well, yes. And we can glow with self-righteousness as we slither into bankruptcy. The other cases are more clear-cut. There’s Sean, a bald old Irish creep, who faces eviction because he boozes his rent money away. He loiters in the office talking pervy drivel and hoping to score a weird’ ‘hug’ from a female solicitor. Next there’s Ken, a wheedling divorcee whose ex-wife has restricted access to his kids. No surprise there. He’s a stingy, adulterous misogynist who thinks bursting into tears will win him sympathy from women. Denied legal aid, he dates a lawyer in the hope of scoring free advice in return for a glass of iffy claret. Finally there’s Ergun, a deluded Turk, whose incontinent and gangrenous dog has damaged his rented flat and who believes that his wish to keep a dung-squirting quadruped in his landlord’s property should be ratified at public expense.
With these three cases Lenkiewicz manages to build a compelling argument against legal aid. She makes the system look like a fairground ride for feckless halfwits who imagine that their addiction problems, their infidelities and their fondness for sick mutts confer rights upon them identical to those enshrined in Magna Carta. Supporters of the BNP will note with pleasure that all four litigants appear to be migrants or the children of migrants. If you’re a legal aid solicitor, you’d be wise to avoid this play. It jeopardises your profession and may accelerate the implementation of Laspo 2.
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