In Richard Bean’s inert two-hander, middle-aged friends Ted and Morrie are holed up in a drab B&B in Finsbury Park with a video camera and half a plan. Ted (Stephen Merchant) is a highly-strung, pedantic middle manager, embodying that quintessential nimbyism and intolerance that’s made Britain so Great. Morrie (Steffan Rhodri) is a barber and amateur cameraman, the depth of whose characterisation seems to extend to his inability to remember words.
Rhodri’s cockney accent sounds laboured, as if most of his effort is going into maintaining it rather than, well, acting but he picks up towards the end in an unexpectedly dramatic denouement that brings out the sweeter and more caring side of Morrie’s character. He’s a fantasist, having made up story after story about his non-existent father and his non-existent mother and his non-existent girlfriends, and Rhodri gently brings out the subtlety of what these delusions might mean for Morrie’s mental health.
It’s Ted’s mental health that is more overtly wavering. He found a book in a shed that describes a utopian way of living, and wants people to stump up £30 to go and live with him in Peru, escaping all the hideousness of the modern world.
There are big problems with the whole limp affair: Bean’s broad comic style is ill-matched with the play’s subject matter – mental illness – to the point of insensitivity; there’s barely any plot (within the 90 minutes there’s about 75 of occasionally funny dialogue and 15 of a bizarrely extreme climax); the 75 minutes of dialogue are just not funny enough to sustain interest in the nothing else that’s happening on stage.
Ted’s desire to go and live in a utopian community in Peru whiffs a little of My Dinner With Andre, the two man in a hotel setup smells a fair bit of The Dumb Waiter (especially one scene where Ted reads the paper and tuts), and the character of Ted absolutely stinks of Alan Partridge – talking about makes of cars, absolutely and fundamentally satisfied with himself and his beliefs. He keenly sniffs out things to moan about, like the fact that the B&B receptionist hasn’t heard of Oswald Moseley.
Bean has talked about how the characters represent two conflicting sides of his personality – in Ted, the stickler for rules, the intolerant and angry man; in Morrie the laissez-faire liberal. But the contrast doesn’t come through particularly strongly. Ted, certainly, does express that quaint Daily Mail sensibility – you know, homophobia, xenophobia, ignorance, and fear born of that ignorance, fear that the world is changing in a way they can’t understand. Compared to Ted, Morrie is quite chilled. He’s a slightly camp hairdresser who shoots porn in his spare time and sleeps with the women he films. But he rarely expresses any opinion.
And in their performances, though they’re both fine on their own terms, there’s no chemistry between the two of them. At one point, when Ted collapses on the bed in tears, Morrie snuggles up awkwardly next to him and half-heartedly pats him. But what Merchant captures well is a rabbit-in-headlights, wide-eyed fear behind the objectionable bravura. His frustration is born out in a scheme that reveals the fragility of his mental state.
Richard Kent’s set is pretty perfect, complete with grime around the air vents, faded floral bedsheets and the mandatory Corby trouser press.
Merchant and Rhodri go through the motions, enacting some duff physical stuff and reeling off chunks of what Richard Bean claims used to be his stand up routine. But it never clicks. There’s nothing between them, and they’re caught in a lame drama in which nothing happens.