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Stephen Merchant on The Mentalists, Britishness and stripping off to sell tickets

Funnyman Stephen Merchant tells us what to expect from his West End theatre debut in dark comedy drama The Mentalists

© Helen Maybanks
Stephen Merchant and Steffan Rhodri in 'The Mentalists'

Lanky comic Stephen Merchant shot to fame after co-writing smash sitcom ‘The Office’ with Ricky Gervais. Since then he’s won three Baftas and an Emmy, and hit the big time as a stand-up. Now he’s about to star in a West End revival of Richard Bean’s 2002 comedy ‘The Mentalists’.

Are you particularly nervous about your theatre debut?
‘As nervous as I am whenever I have to go on stage for my stand-up shows. I know I’ll probably regret ever doing it within two days, because I’ll just be so tired. But my grandfather was a builder and my dad was a plumber, which was proper work, so I’m not going to fuss about two hours a night.’ 

Do you have any backstage traditions before you go on?
‘I like to have a bit of Steve time before I go on, and I normally pace about a bit and use the toilet a few times, but I’m not superstitious. I will probably also do some absurd warm-up exercises. I’m actually quite enjoying some of the stuff that you read about in Theatreland – pretending to be a tree and rolling around on the floor shouting “om” and “um”. When you’re doing it, it makes perfect sense.’

So theatre could be your thing?
‘I think I’ve grown to appreciate acting more over the last couple of years and I feel a bit more accomplished, a bit more ambitious. I quite like the idea of being a grand man of theatre. I’ll start wearing cravats and holding court at Joe Allen, that’s my dream.’

Is ‘The Mentalists’ anything like Richard Bean’s recent plays?
‘“The Mentalists” is not really cut from the same cloth as, say, “One Man, Two Guvnors”. It’s a darker comedy drama with some great one-liners and some good physical stuff. It’s basically me and Steffan [Rhodri, his co-star] in a hotel room with a video camera, trying to revolutionise the world.’ 

What drew you to the play?
‘Both of the characters are quite parochial and are very British. My character [Ted] comes from a middle-management world but he has aspirations of greatness and likes to pontificate and lecture. They inhabit the same universe as something like “The Office”, so that was one of the reasons why it appealed to me.’

We’ve heard rumours there’s a possibility of nudity as well…
‘If you think that the idea of me being nude will sell tickets, then I’m more than happy to say that there’s explicit nudity.’  

The Mentalists’ is at Wyndham’s Theatre until Sep 26. Book with Time Out for an exclusive Q&A on Jul 23.