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Interview: Stephen Merchant

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Although best known for co-writing and directing (and playing ‘the Ogg Monster’ in) seminal TV series The Office, there are many more strings to Stephen Merchant’s bow - including film actor, stand-up comedian and radio presenter.

Now he’s adding ‘stage actor’ to his impressive CV, playing Ted in One Man, Two Guvnors creator Richard Bean’s The Mentalists, currently at Wyndham’s Theatre. Here’s what he had to say about his new role…

How did you come to work with Richard Bean – did you know him beforehand? (Angus Hall)

No, I’d never met Richard. I really enjoyed One Man, Two Guvnors but wasn’t familiar with his other work. My agent sent me  The Mentalists and I loved it from page one.

What attracted you most to The Mentalists(Georgie Tully)

It chimed closely with my own concerns as a writer: it features a suburban British man trying to put his stamp on the world, however pathetic or misguided his attempt may be. It has dark humour mixed with laugh-out-loud one-liners, but it’s comedy born of character and situation, not just jokes for the sake of jokes. And aside from the laughs, there is a great deal of pathos and human drama. These are all the elements I try and put into the projects that I write myself.

You play Ted – a middle manager in an industrial cleaning company – who has a utopian message for the world. What would Stephen Merchant’s message to the world say? (Ted Upton)

‘Before you do anything stupid, try and see it from the other point of view.’

How is the experience of working with [co-star] Steffan Rhodri? (Jill Franks)

Steffan is a delight. Aside from being a really talented and thoughtful actor, he has great comic sensibilities: perfect timing and his own rhythms which make his performance fresh and unique.

Is being in a West End play scarier than doing stand-up, or is it easier being in character? (Kate Hillard)

Having done stand-up on large stages across the world, I’m used to live audiences. But this will definitely be a new experience and I’m really excited about staying in character and playing Ted’s emotional ups and downs. Plus, stand-up is a lonely job so I’m looking forward to sharing the stage with another performer.

What role have you played that’s closest to who you are as a person? (Amy Powell)

My TV show Hello Ladies drew on some of my experiences of dating. It was about the loneliness and desperation of a singleton called Stuart living in LA, trying to access the world of beautiful people as a way of punishing the past and all the people who said he was a loser. I can empathise with those feelings but I’m not that person: I’m not as frustrated and bitter as Stuart. 

Is being funny in the UK different to being funny in the US? (Oliver Scott)

Not really. Audiences on both sides of the pond either get you or they don’t. However, I think it’s probably true that in general American audiences prefer comedy that’s a little more hopeful and optimistic. Brit audiences love laughing at people being put through the wringer, whether it’s Basil Fawlty or Del Boy or David Brent.

Do you think you’ll ever have a go at writing a play? (Michael Fawcett)

Perhaps. I often have ideas that I feel could work as a play. I was recently listening to a documentary about Joseph Stalin’s interpreter, who translated during negotiations between the dictator and Winston Churchill. The two leaders didn’t get on and traded insults. This poor chap stuck in the middle, nervously translating the barbs, seems like an interesting character.

You divide your time between London and LA – what do you miss about the UK (Harry Everett)

I love the LA sunshine and lifestyle but I do sometimes crave a healthy dose of British cynicism and some good, full-blooded whingeing.

What is, in your opinion, your best piece of work? (Daisy Willets)

I have favourite moments in all of my work. In The Office, it’s when Tim takes off his microphone and asks out Dawn. It’s a scene that could only happen in a fake documentary, so I’m proud of it because it’s a perfect blend of form and content (as we’d say in my old Film Studies class). I love Liam Neeson in Life’s Too Short. He’s just brilliantly deadpan. And I think the sex scene in my Hello Ladies movie is one of the funniest things I’ve done.

Who are your biggest comedy heroes? (Ben Ashton)

I have many heroes but while I’m rehearsing The Mentalists I’m inspired by John Cleese and Tony Hancock. They do ‘Angry Frustrated Englishman’ brilliantly. Both would have been great as Ted.

Any other theatrical roles you have your eye on… some Shakespeare perhaps? (Phil Bailey)

I love David Mamet - do any of his characters have West Country accents?

Don’t miss this summer’s most wickedly funny comedy at the Wyndham’s Theatre from 3 July for 12 weeks only. Best available seats just £25 for Wednesday matinees (usually up to £57.25) or £20 day seats are available for every performance at the theatre box office.

To book your tickets simply click here, visit the box office or call 0844 482 5120.

T&Cs: Tickets usually up to £57.25 reduced to £25 for Wednesday matinees until 23 September. Or book tickets from just £15 in the Balcony. Days seats must be bought in person at the Wyndham’s Theatre on the day from 10am of the performance that you wish to see.

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