Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Bang Bang!, John Cleese’s stage debut, gives us everything we could expect of a farce: dropped and misplaced trousers, slammed doors and hiding in wardrobes. While it’s undeniable that the audience enjoys this, there’s a lingering feeling of nostalgia for a genre which has certainly passed its heyday.
Adapted from Georges Feydeau’s French farce Monsieur Chasse!, Bang Bang! centres on a story of marital deceit with the wronged Leontine (Tessa Peake-Jones) taking revenge on her philandering husband, Duchotel (Tony Gardner), by setting up her own affair with Doctor Moricet (Richard Earl). The two couples end up conducting their affairs in opposite apartments which the fallen Countess Latour (Wendi Peters) manages. Leontine and Duchotel’s desperate attempts to conceal their affairs from the other result in tremendous laughter from the audience.
Farce is an intensely physical form of comedy and the cast successfully inject it with great energy. Naturally some jokes land better than others, but overall the play is full of humour. There are some wonderfully meta moments, such as criticising the cliché of hiding in a wardrobe, and the occasional skilful break of the fourth wall, for instance a character wryly noting, “this is plot!”. These moments show Cleese’s handiwork is at play, along with numerous Fawlty Towers-esque moments which the audience laps up. However, notably the older audience members relish the style of humour more than the handful of younger people. Whether or not Bang Bang! attempts to revive farce or harks back to older days, it certainly feels like something you’d watch with your parents and pleasantly laugh along to, but not the type of humour you’d necessarily seek out yourself. But Cleese himself, spotted in the audience, was at least finding it hilarious.
The whole cast have great comedic timing and bounce off each other’s performances with impulse and spirit, making us love to hate their flaws. Peake-Jones and Earl’s relationship is particularly amusing, with the spoilt and stroppy Leontine reacting explosively to Moricet’s seduction and petulance. Gardner also fully embraces his hypocritical and deceitful character, although he does have a bizarre tendency to lunge his way across the stage. Peters is particularly magnificent as the saucy Countess Latour who thrives on all the drama, and her song is a stand-out moment in the production. The cast’s accents are a strange element of characterisation as they all speak in RP, apart from, inexplicably, one maid with a French accent and a gentleman with a West Country accent. This strange divergence isn’t worth the one gag they get out of it.
The gorgeous set is intricately designed and, along with the luxurious costumes, immerses us in the bourgeois 19th Century French setting. The set also cleverly inverts for a smooth scene change, with each of the set’s panels spun to reveal an entirely different room. The set and props provide another level to the humour, with wobbly table legs, lobster dinners thrown about and sheets to hide under. This is perhaps a little too much for some tastes but fits with the ridiculous nature of farce. The period setting also importantly contextually grounds the humour with its sprinklings of misogyny.
Cleese’s Bang Bang! is certainly worth a watch, its fast-paced and playful nature sure to lighten the grim February days. Even if farce perhaps does not hold the same appeal it once did, there’s no denying that Cleese does it best. Bang Bang! offers a prime opportunity to see this comedic genius’ work in action.
Bang Bang! performs at the Exeter Northcott until 15th February and then embarks on a UK tour.
Photo Credits: Paul Blakemore