Adapted by John Cleese from a late 19th century comedy by Georges Feydeau, Bang Bang! begins its UK tour at the Exeter Northcott Theatre, performing from 6-15 February. It’s a farce about extra-marital affairs, deception, revenge, traps and chaos!
I interviewed Wendi Peters, who plays Countess Latour, prior to the show’s opening and was intrigued to hear how she’d describe the play in her own words. “Bang Bang! is a fast, funny farce. It’s absolute mayhem. But it’s brilliant mayhem.” Audiences can expect things to go “horribly wrong,” the unusual breaking of the fourth wall, for doors and wardrobes to come in, and a pair of trousers to play a role in the comedy (as is typical of farce). She affirms, “it is just brilliant, and it will definitely keep your attention and keep you laughing for a full two hours.”
The interview took place on 31 January, which led Wendi to reflect on our current need for an escapist outlet – for something silly to laugh at. “You know what, we’re a tricky day today really, aren’t we? Last day of January with everything that’s happening in the UK and Europe … And people need to have two hours of pure escapism. And that will happen. I defy you not to laugh.” Her energy is infectious when she describes how much she has laughed during rehearsals at the play’s uncountable “corker moments” – “I can’t wait for an audience to see it now!” She believes the play appeals to a universal audience, whether they’re familiar with the humour of Fawlty Towers and Monty Python or not, and no matter their age.
Photo Credits: Paul D Jennings/@TrueGoldenGeek
For Wendi, the main appeal of farce is its silliness: “I think it is like watching a sitcom in the theatre. And I think it’s the escapism. […] Every play, every genre has its place in theatre. But if you want to laugh, you go to a farce.” In a promotional video for the play, Tony Gardner who plays Duchotel, declares, “Farce has fallen out of fashion”. Wendi agrees with his summation and puts this down to the fact that “we’ve become very naturalistic in our acting lives, be it TV, or be it theatre.” Expanding on this, she says farce by contrast is “silly” and “over-the-top”. We laugh together when she playfully claims she has “no idea why they’ve asked me to do it.” Wendi hopes Bang Bang! may help to rejuvenate the genre, “even if it’s just for us non-subtle actors.”
Describing her character to me, Wendi says Countess Latour, “like all the characters”, “has something to hide” and can be sneaky. “She’s a bit of a gossip” and likes to know everything that goes on in the apartments for which she’s a concierge. When she discovers who her guests are and what they’re getting up to she decides to enjoy herself by “stirring things up a bit”, particularly because “she doesn’t like ladies of the night.” Wendi jokingly confides that the Countess is “basically a posh brothel keeper”. She lets me know we can look forward to her telling the Countess’s life story in a song that acts as a cover for a big scene change. Drawing on her experience of performing in musicals, Wendi will sing of the Countess’s dramatic love affair with a lion tamer, leading to her fall from grace and explaining how she becomes a concierge. Hearing that this song was written specifically for the show by John Cleese, with John Chambers composing the music, makes me particularly excited to see it onstage. Wendi humbly expresses how “very very lucky” she feels “to be here.”
Speaking about her career, Wendi loves to play a variety of parts and to be challenged: “That’s why I’m here, in this business.” Having often been cast in “downstairs roles, you know […] sort of because of Corrie,” she finds playing a countess in a period piece, with all the beautiful costumes that entails, to be a refreshing change from northern parts. “It’s the dressing up moments, the researching and creating something that isn’t you” which she enjoys, though she believes “there will always be something slightly of you within that character.”
Wendi explains that playing the role of Countess Latour demands “great gusto”. She tells the story of receiving an email from John Cleese, circulated by Bang Bang!’s director Daniel Buckroyd, which told the cast to be brave and that there’s no room for subtlety in farce. “Make your mark” and go for it, she asserts. Nevertheless, she speaks of the cast’s communal effort in rehearsals to find “balance” so that no single character is more over the top than any other.
Although not performing in the play, John Cleese’s influence has extended into the rehearsal process. Wendi describes how much she enjoys “placing comedy,” and her joy was palpable whilst describing the experience of working with Cleese when he came in to give notes on a full run-through. She believes his advice on subtle improvements to the actors’ comic timing means the play has become “a near perfect farce”. She tells me that “seeing his brain working” was “fascinating”, describing it as a “masterclass” she’ll “never forget”. At about this moment, an echoing laugh resounds around the rehearsal space and she tells me, smiling: “When you hear that laugh in the background, that’s Mr Cleese. That’s quite scary, isn’t it?” That’s right, the man himself was in Exeter’s Maketank, laughing joyfully.
Photo Credits: Paul D Jennings/@TrueGoldenGeek
I asked if Wendi had any advice for aspiring actors, particularly students. Above all, she recommends being part of a theatrical society or group and to go and see as much theatre as possible, as she herself continues to do. “You’re learning so much from the actors onstage. […] You’re so lucky to have that theatre on your campus!”
Wendi is looking forward to returning to the “lovely, intimate space” of the Northcott (in 2018 she starred in a production of Salad Days which came to the Theatre). She tells me she loves touring because “audiences are different around the country” so the actors have to tune in to their viewers carefully, constantly engaging with them and riding out laughs. As for her expectations of the Northcott shows? “Who knows what’s going to happen? It’s going to be fun.”
– Naomi Hart
Bang Bang! is showing at the Exeter Northcott 6-15 February. U26 Membership offer available.