Bonnie n Pete in the comeback disaster
Former child star Bonnie Langford has never acted in a
straight play before. But now she is helping bring Peter Cook
back to life, writes Richard Hodkinson
Bonnie Langford with her co star, Jonathan Hansler at the
New End Theatre
The tenth anniversary of the comedian Peter Cooks death
late last year saw tributes broadcast on TV and radio, all attempting
to capture the elusive quality that made him such a unique talent.
Documentaries and dramatisations of the great mans life,
even repeat showings of his own performances, served mainly to
illustrate that the nature of Cooks genius was unknowable.
Just opened at Hampsteads New End Theatre, however is a
new play that takes a different route into his complex psyche.
Pete n Me by Tim Marriott is a fictional account of
the aftermath of Cooks disastrous performance at the Cambridge
Theatre in November 1972, the first night of Behind the
Fridge his comeback show with Dudley Moore.
Cook was a Hampstead resident until his death in January 1995
and was a well-known figure in the streets around the New End,
a fact that has not escaped the stars of the production, Jonathan
Hansler who plays Cook and Bonnie Langford as the second of his
three wives, Judy Huxtable.
I think that its actually rather lovely that we are
performing here, says Ms Langford. I went to the pub
next door to get a packet of crisps the other day and the man
behind the bar knew all about Peter. He talked about Bronco the
tramp he used to talk to, who died recently, and it just struck
me that it is quite special to be performing in an area he loved.
The two actors have come to their roles through contrasting routes.
While Cook was a recognisable but distant figure to Ms Langford,
Jonathan Hansler is a dyed-in-the-wool aficionado. Ive
been a huge fan for decades, really, he says. As a
kid I had the Derek and Clive album Ad Nauseam the one
that came with a free bag of sick which I listened to very
quietly under the bedcovers. I was a very big fan.
By way of illustration he breaks into an unsettlingly accurate
impression of Cook to recite from the famous Secret Policemans
Ball sketch: Did you know your intestines are over four
miles long? Its a wonder they can cram it all in.
Has it been helpful or problematic for Ms Langford to come to
the role relatively cold? No, not really, she says.
The whole show happened very quickly for me. The casting
director Eileen sent me the script just before Christmas and then,
obviously, everyones offices closed down. I thought theyd
forgotten about me until Eileen rang up one Tuesday in January
and said I really must take you to tea at the Ritz to talk
about the play we start rehearsals on Monday! So
I didnt have much time to worry about the part and, in preparing
for it everyones got Peter Cook stories.
I was interviewed on the radio by Danny Baker who told me
about their nights out, and everyone who knew him cant help
telling you about how charming he was, how dishy he was and how
achingly, achingly funny.
Has playing the role given Mr Hansler any insights into what made
such a complicated and troubled man tick? I think so,
he says, I mean, its difficult, but through the research
and the long hours you spend thinking about the man and the part,
you develop theories about him.
Theres a type in this country the quiet rebel
that I think he became towards the end of his life. And
he was always a bit punk. He was a comedy rock star for a lot
of his career. Bands like Led Zeppelin used to play bootlegged
Derek and Clive tapes on their tour planes, and you cant
get much more rock n roll than that.
Ms Langford interjects: I think its a very English
thing that we wait until someone has gone before we begin to appreciate
them. He was such an unconventional character that it has become
easier to place him since he died.
Thats true, says Mr Hansler, The problem
with any genius is that its terribly flawed and it makes
people uncomfortable. I mean, this is a man who was the toast
of America at the age of 22, a man who, at that age, once wrote
26 sketches for a single West End show.
As the pair prepare to return to rehearsal, Bonnie Langford, disarmingly,
lets slip a fact that might have made the intimidating prospect
of bringing Cook back to Hampstead even more daunting. The former
child star and doyenne of the musical stage has never done
a play before. Not one. Well, she says, not
a totally straight one. Ive done dozens of musicals and
plays with music, but this is the first time Ive been on
stage without singing a note. Honest.
Pete n Me is at the New End Theatre until
February 26. Box office: 0870 033 2733.