Farce is “a particular sense of humour”, Tessa Peake-Jones admits as we sit down to chat in Bang Bang!’s rehearsal space at Exeter’s Maketank. It’s less than a week before their opening night at Exeter Northcott and for Peake-Jones, known for her roles in Only Fools and Horses and Granchester, this is her first experience acting what she refers to as “proper farce, traditional farce.” It is also the stage writing debut of British comedy legend, John Cleese, who has previously achieved global success with works such as Monty Python and Fawlty Towers.
Bang Bang!, written by John Cleese and directed by Daniel Buckroyd, is an adaptation of Georges Feydeau’s 19th Century play, Monsieur Chasse!, which tells the tale of Leontine (Peake-Jones) who, discovering that her husband Duchotel (Tony Gardner) has used ‘hunting trips’ to cover up his affair, decides to take revenge and organises her own secret liaison in a Parisian establishment managed by concierge Countess Latour (Wendi Peters). However, “unbeknownst to [Leontine], in the same apartment block her husband is also doing the same thing.” In typical farcical style, chaos ensues with, as Peake-Jones comments, “lots of in and out of doors…male trousers are dropped…there’s a lot of mistaken identity… the audience are in the know before the characters on the stage which is part of the fun…if we do it well, it’s funny.”
I wonder if this humour is rooted in Feydeau or Cleese. “It’s a proper mix,” Peake-Jones explains, “I mean you can sense when you’re rehearsing it, [Cleese’s] stamp you know, and there are times we’ll all fall into the trap of going ‘oh that’s very Fawlty Towers and you’ll go ‘stop’,” slapping her wrist emphatically, “it’s not, it’s Feydeau.” Cleese’s influence is present enough that Peake-Jones believes that if you watched it unaware of its writer, “you would probably guess it’s John Cleese.” And does Cleese have as much talent for stage as screen? Peake-Jones certainly thinks so, commenting that his “razor-sharp wit and humour is something, because it’s so him, that goes from screen to play.”
We discuss why farce has fallen out of fashion to some extent, and whether Bang Bang! is likely to have success in attracting a younger audience. “It’s a sort of generational thing,” Peake-Jones considers, “I think the fact that it’s set in its traditional period time, I wonder how much appeal there is [to a younger audience].” However, Peake-Jones is hopeful that its premiere on University of Exeter’s campus, the first leg in a five-month tour, will help bring farce to a new generation. “It’s brilliant that it’s starting here on the campus… the fact that this theatre is placed surrounded by youngsters, we’re all really hoping that that will bring in a different sort of audience.” Nevertheless, Peake-Jones acknowledges that “it’s very difficult to place theatre now for younger people…which is a bit depressing as it’s our jobs.” She cites issues including financial accessibility, saying it would be great if they could “reduce the prices to like ten quid for youngsters…the theatre prices in London…you’re looking at 50, 60 pounds, how many people can afford that?” The Northcott seeks to tackle this with their U26 scheme which offers discounted ticket prices, including £5 tickets for Bang Bang! on select nights. I’m sure many would agree with Peake-Jones when she comments that “it would be nice if that was done nationwide.”
We talk more about Peake-Jones’ character, Leontine. “I have an animal always for people I play,” she tells me, “so this character is a lioness, and she roars, she roars a lot in the play, she can be very angry suddenly, she throws things, she’s, I think, probably quite spoilt.” Peake-Jones herself is vibrant and expressive, chucking her arms around and stamping her foot to emphasise points, so it’s not difficult to imagine her embracing the role of a lioness. While her cheerful, friendly demeanour must differ greatly from the “spoilt” Leontine, Peake-Jones doesn’t see the potential unlikability of Leontine as an issue, saying that you can’t “try to soften or make [characters] different to become likeable…if you’re playing a proper horrible person, you can’t play it horribly, you’ve got to see that that person to you is a very normal human being, it’s just that what they’re doing is not great to other people.” Wise words from Cleese also helped Peake-Jones’ characterisation as “[he] said a brilliant thing before we started rehearsing, he said don’t forget that every character in this play is a selfish shit…that’s such a brilliant note because ultimately you can still, I hope, like them and want to watch their story but…to be allowed to go, actually I’m not going to behave well because they don’t, it’s great.”
With years of comedic experience from Only Fools and Horses and time working with the acclaimed Alan Ayckbourn at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Peake-Jones can surely approach this role with confidence. Cleese’s involvement with Bang Bang! presents another opportunity for her to work with a comedic genius, and as we speak, the cast has had their first run in front of Cleese just the previous day. “Yesterday’s run we’d all agree was the most nerve-wracking thing we’d done for a long time,” Peake-Jones admits, “certainly I said to them all before it, the audience will be nothing like as scary as this, because we want to please him and we all want to do our best…he’s invested so much in this, we want him to go ‘oh it’s good’, you don’t want him going ‘oh blimey is that it?’. So, there was a nervous tension about it, but he was lovely.” When Cleese later joins us at the Maketank, his friendly greetings all round certainly seem to evidence this. Peake-Jones greatly appreciates his expertise, saying “he’s brilliant, he’ll just say something like ‘if you turn there,’ and when you do it everyone laughs, you think, ‘well, how’s that possible?’. But obviously, that is his genius.” Whether Cleese’s genius pays off remains to be seen until opening night on Thursday 6, especially as “the other member of the cast is the audience really…until that audience is sitting there, we’re not going to know quite how some of the comedy will play out.”
While Peake-Jones has certainly achieved great success and garnered much enjoyment from her acting career, when asked what her advice would be for aspiring actors, she doesn’t advocate the industry. “It’s so hard…if you can think of anything else that you would like to do, do that. If you don’t mind the rejection, having no money a lot of the time, finding it very hard to get mortgages and know where the bills and money is coming from. If you can put up with all of that, because you’re that dedicated to it, then go ahead, but it’s not an easy job in terms of the emotional. You have to be quite… strong to cope because most of the time you go up for things and don’t get them.” Yet for Peake-Jones herself, she could never imagine doing anything else. “I felt there was no choice…. I look back now and think god, there were so many other possibilities, but I just didn’t see anything because I was completely set on it… I was single-minded.”
However, Peake-Jones encourages those interested in the industry to “see as much as you can because that’s how you learn, from actors and plays and playwrights.” Bang Bang!’s famed writer and star-studded cast seemingly offers a prime chance for this. More importantly perhaps, it also offers the chance for a laugh, which, as Peake-Jones emphasises, is much needed in the world at the moment. “It’s quite nice if [the audience] can come in and go ‘blimey, it’s not great’ when they’re looking on their phones and then come out and go ‘oh I’m feeling a bit better’.” If Bang Bang! manages to achieve this, Peake-Jones believes “we’ll have done our job.” Let’s hope they do.
– Katrina Bennett