Chris Eldon Lee reviews “Bang Bang”, which is at Theatr Clwyd in Mold until Saturday 22nd February and Wolverhampton Grand Theatre in May.
The spirit of John Cleese seeps from every scene of his new play.
He’s not actually in it. The producers say, “He wanted to be”, but they “wouldn’t let him”. But he’s present in every other sense; in every characters’ body language, in every acerbic line, in every baffled silence, in every teetering step on the very edge of reason. It’s all classic Cleese and, even in his absence, his audience screams with laughter.
It could be argued that this is not really his play and it’s not really new. What he has done is take a pretty obscure 19th century Feydeau farce and devastatingly ‘Cleesed it’. No disciple of Fawlty Towers will be surprised to learn that farce has been his favourite form of theatre ever since he revelled in seeing a number of Feydeau’s in the late 1960s. In Fawlty Towers he applied elements of traditional farce to a sit. com. In ‘Bang Bang’ he is totally faithful to the genre, whilst stretching it way beyond breaking point.
Not content – like his Whitehall predecessor Brain Rix – to have just one man lose his trousers on stage, in ‘Bang Bang’ practically every man loses his trousers; some of which just happen to be identical. One pair, in particular, is far too small and has in incriminating letter stuffed in its pocket.
Cleese’s ‘playing’ with the art form is pushed ever further. A wronged husband refuses to hide in a cupboard because it’s “a bit corny, isn’t it”. Lines like “the balcony goes all round the house” are dangled like carrots, and when one character berates another for using the word “imbecile” on stage, the excuse is he’s “talking to the audience.”
But this is, nevertheless, traditional, glorious farce. Cleese’s plot has plenty of sneaky twists, but the consequences are joyously familiar.
We are in 1890’s Paris, in the duck egg blue apartment of a middle-aged city lawyer, Duchotel, and his wife Leontine. They are filling shotgun cartridges for Duchotel’s forthcoming game hunting trip (hence the play’s title). Their doctor, Moricet, arrives and it is clear he is desirous of an affair with Leontine. How can he persuade her?
Like Iago with Desdemona’s handkerchief up his sleeve, he sows the seeds of doubt about Duchotel’s honour. Surely if he is being unfaithful, so can she; especially when the man he is supposed to go shooting with knows nothing about it?
In Act 2 the situation is removed to a Parisian brothel (reserved for respectable married women only) where absolutely everybody turns up, with or without trousers, including an easily duped policeman.
The scene change, incidentally, is very entertainingly done by the male cast in warehouse coats shifting flat whilst the star of the act, Wendy Peters as the ‘concierge’, sings a music hall ballad about a poor lion tamer. She rules the place like a nuclear-fuelled Margaret Rutherford in head-on, head mistress mode. And when the obligatory boudoir doors later don’t behave, we’ve already seen the reason why.
Tessa-Peake Jones and Richard Earle are crazily appealing as the mid-life lovers and Tony Gardner almost channels a certain famous silly walk as Duchotel. Vicki Davids seems to display all the attributes of a love child of Polly and Manuel; whilst Harry Secombe’s son, Andy, does a very funny 19th century version of beating an innocent object with a branch.
Incidentally (again) I’m pretty sure I saw Spike Milligan’s daughter in the audience. So, the Goons were gathering in homage.
However, there is much more to this show than a Tardis trip from Torquay to Gay Paris. Lovers of the theatre are in for a real treat as the present-day master of farce wickedly collaborates with his 19th century hero to produce something refreshingly new for a modern-day audience.
After such a crap year as 2019, director Daniel Buckroyd simply said he wanted to make people laugh. All three men should be delighted with themselves.
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