The old adage that we prefer the familiar was never more apparent to me than last night when I watched the stage production of John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. The audience, most of whom seemed of an age that first laughed at Basil between 1975 and 1979 when the TV show was originally broadcast, knew what was coming and were primed to laugh at all the right moments: Sybil on the warpath, Basil losing the plot, Mrs Richards’ deafness, Manuel’s shaky grasp of English, the talking moose, ‘Don’t mention the war’ and, most of all, the layer upon layer of confusion and misunderstanding that made Fawlty Towers a superlative farce. And it’s all been recreated to perfection.

        Now much is new, however. This stage production, overseen by Cleese but directed by Caroline Jay Ranger, seamlessly blends together three of the original half-hour sitcoms – The Hotel Inspector, Communication Problems and The Germans – into one 90-minute plus play that here and there has echoes from the other nine episodes in the series. At times there were even hints of Python’s silly walk and, when Basil yells ‘Polly’ at the long-suffering waitress played originally by his wife Connie Booth, I was reminded of Cleese in the pet shop where Michael Palin sold him a dead parrot. 

        Don’t mend anything that isn’t broken seems to have been the production’s prime concern, so the cast are mimics as much as actors. Adam Jackson-Smith is Basil, as ungainly and awkward as Basil/Cleese, a tall, thin man, with long legs who manages to contort himself into pretzels, agonising over a faux-pas, getting the wrong end of the stick and abusing Spanish waiter Manuel and his guests alike. Anna-Jane Casey is just as effective as Sybil, beehive in place, the clothes just right, ditto her shrill accent, especially on the phone to the unseen Audrey – ‘I know’ – or when berating her hapless husband. There were times when I thought Victoria Fox’s Polly really was the young Connie Booth, at least in the way she spoke, and Hemi Yeroham pitched Manuel just right, not quite as dumb as we might think. When he said ‘I know nothing’ the place erupted. The major’s bigoted dialogue has been softened, no doubt to acquiesce with 21st Century PC sensibilities, but he still hasn’t found the wallet that was nicked by ‘the woman he once knew’.

        Although there is a 20-minute interval, the three episodes overlap smoothly and some additional dialogue has been inserted to assist continuity. The action is fast-paced, with lines traded like ricochet fire at moments of high farce and it doesn’t pay to drift off. At the climax the whole house of cards tumbles into a riot of confusion as the fire alarm brings everyone – all the cast, including the two old ladies, the major brandishing a gun and the three hotel inspectors – to the dance, every one of them bewildered, bemused or furious at Fawlty Towers’ wretched proprietor.

        Though I knew almost all the jokes, I still laughed, as did my whole family, not least daughter Olivia visiting this week from the US. I can remember when, aged about 10, she used to watch our Fawlty Towers video box set in our house in London on rotation, memorising the dialogue to the extent that her and a couple of friends from her primary school actually staged an ad-hoc FT play of their own in our house. We shot a video of that and this weekend I’m going to seek it out and watch it again. Whatever weirdness has overtaken John Cleese in recent years, Fawlty Towers remains a comedy masterpiece, fun for all ages as the billboards used to say.


Anonymous said...

A true classic..
Watched it religiously!

John Halsall said...

You started it!

No we didn't!

Yes you did - you invaded Poland!