Classic French farce, especially the plays of Georges Feydeau, aren’t easy to translate into English. The words aren’t the problem; rendering Parisian life during the belle époque for a 21st century audience is the difficulty. Take Bang Bang, John Cleese’s version of the little-known Monsieur Chasse!.
The first act establishes the situation. Duchotel (Oliver Cotton) has told his wife Leontine (Caroline Langrishe) that he’s off on yet another hunting trip with his old friend Cassagne (Peter Bourke). When another friend, Dr Moricet (Richard Earl), throws doubt on the nature of her husband’s quarry, Leontine decides that what’s sauce for the gander is definitely sauce for her particular goose.
Act Two takes place in a most peculiar lodging house run by a déclassée countess (Sarah Crowden). Designer David Shields and director Nicky Henson effect a deservedly-applauded scene change before our eyes, as set pieces swivel and furniture is transformed to an infectious waltz (mainly by Sophie Cotton), accompanied by the violin-playing maid Babette (Jess Murphy).
The trouble is that our willing suspension of belief – that sine non quo of all theatre – keeps on being pulled up short by phrases, expletives and even the occasional gesture which destroy our illusion of a vanished past and its society. You certainly can’t blame the cast for this. The actors’ timing is exemplary throughout.
Langrishe swoops and swirls through Leontine’s emotional and moral crises with the precision of an excessively elegant battle-axe. Earl’s Moricet, a physician with seduction on his mind rather than medicine, counterpoints her precisely. Cotton’s increasingly frantic attempts to achieve his aims ar balanced by the efforts of Simon Hepworth’s police inspector to frustrate them.
Also pursuing his own agenda is Duchotel’s nephew Gontran, a born flaneur in Robert Neumark Jones’ portrayal. Bourke has a telling appearance as he arrives in the third act to keep an appointment which is definitely not one of the ones mentioned so far. It’s all fast, furious (in a nice way) and thoroughly farcical. But somehow I feel that Feydeau has been short-changed.
Four star rating.
Bang Bang continues at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 11 March with matinées on 9 and 11 March.