Photos: Paul Blakemore
We all know John Cleese can write a good farce; each of the twelve episodes of Fawlty Towers was a piece of exquisite structure, plotting and execution and his writing along with Connie Booth was just about faultless. Along with his work for Monty Python, which contained enough farcical elements to keep people cackling for life, it is a wonder that it has taken so long for him to commit his writing talents to the stage.
In BANG BANG! Cleese has taken the play Monsieur Chasse (Mister Hunting) by Georges Feydeau and injected it with some of his own DNA. Feydeau was a master of the craft of what became known as the ‘bedroom farce’; tales of, seemingly, respectable people exposing their foibles and peccadillos and falling prey to their lust for sex. Mistaken identities, plenty of doors, and an entirely unsentimental approach to characterisation are all hallmarks of a Feydeau Farce as is the surgical plotting and the play structure.
BANG BANG! tells of the shenanigans of well to do lawyer, Duchotel who goes ‘hunting’; his euphemism for meeting his lover. Into the mix is his wife who is trying to strike up a relationship with an amorous doctor, a spurned husband and a devious nephew. With trouser-dropping, door-slamming and a wardrobe to hide-in, as well as a plot of exquisite improbability and ludicrousness, we know we are firmly in farce territory.
For one reason or another, however, the play never really takes off. The scene-setting first act does what it should do; we are then – rather strangely – serenaded into the second act where we wait for the action to ramp up in a frenzied fashion. And it does, but only in the final five minutes or so – we want more – maybe it will continue after the interval – but, sadly, this is the time to bring all the loose ends together and so any action is at a premium.
The situations set up by the plot are comical enough, but the writing straddles a number of genres and never quite knows what it wants to be. Initially it is something rather staid and stiff – not unlike the comedies of the Victorian writer Arthur Wing Pinero which are rarely revived. We have a touch here and there of pantomime – the acknowledgment of the audience with the occasional asides. Then there is the lurch into coarser territory; when the use of the F-word provokes the biggest laugh of the evening, then I fear there is something wrong, however appropriate the use of the expletive. It may have been better to grasp the nettle and go out for a modern take on the piece, rather than a period setting.
The audience seemed to enjoy what was put before them and I don’t believe it was in any way to support the writer who was discretely present amongst them, but this is a slight piece and one, which, ultimately disappoints – it just isn’t funny enough.
The cast manfully work their way through the convolutions of the plot, lead by Tony Gardner as Duchotel. There is more than a smattering of Basil Fawlty in the performance, especially in the final act, but without the height and leg length of the creator of that role, the bodily contortions affected by Gardner made me think he was rather desperate to visit the lavatory. Tessa Peake-Jones was splendidly aloof and vulnerable where needed while Richard Earl was extremely effective as Dr Moricet – almost blowing the proverbial gasket at times. Wendi Peters was, sadly, only featured in the second act, but was a glowing light of off-the-wall comedy as the concierge Madam Latour. A very likeable turn from Daniel Burke as the fresh-faced nephew, Gontran, impresses, as does the lovely little comic creation of Cassagne by Andy Secombe. French maid, Vicki Davids, has some nice moments and her French accent – the only character to have one – is given an explanation of sorts.
A director can only work with the material he is offered and Daniel Buckroyd has certainly created a well-presented production, but is stymied by the lack of impetus in the writing. Design is very successful and much flair and thought has been provided by this department.
BANG BANG! is going to keep people smiling, but my belly was aching to laugh out loud and sadly it didn’t – not once – with some more gusto and ‘business’ this could be a real crowd-pleaser.
TESSA PEAKE-JONES – LEONTINE
TONY GARDNER – DUCHOTEL
VICKI DAVIDS – BABETTE
RICHARD EARL – MORICET
DANIEL BURKE – GONTRAN
ANDY SECOMBE – CASSAGNE
WENDI PETERS – MADAM LATOUR
SIMON DESBOROUGH – INSPECTOR BRIDOIS
MIKHAEL DeVILLE – POLICEMAN
WRITER – JOHN CLEESE
DIRECTOR – DANIEL BUCKROYD
DESIGNER – DAVID SHIELDS
LIGHTING – DAVID W KIDD
COSTUME SUPERVISOR – ALY FIELDEN
PRODUCED BY NORTHCOTT THEATRE & DERMOT MCLAUGHLIN