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Fawlty Towers

Fawlty Towers: The Play, Apollo Theatre - All That Dazzles


Stage adaptations of movies are a common practice but adapting well-loved TV shows are a rarity. How do you begin to condense all of the episodes (even if there were only 12 in this case) and turn it into a cohesive narrative that will work on stage? If that seems like a difficult task, add in the factor that Fawlty Towers has been voted the greatest sitcom of all time and you are left with an impossibly high expectation that runs the risk of being a disaster worthy of one of the events at that infamous hotel. But if the stars align and this worked well, we could be witnessing theatre magic and the beginning of a new stage classic.

First broadcast in 1975, Fawlty Towers has more than stood the test of time, despite only running for two series’. The stage adaptation premiered in Australia in 2016 and now, after a bit of tweaking and further development, makes its UK debut with a West End run at the Apollo theatre. If you are unfamiliar with the premise, the series, and play, focuses on the titular building, Fawlty Towers – a fictional hotel in Torquay run by the rude-mannered Basil Fawlty and his bossy wife Sybil. In increasingly outlandish situations, this is one place where the customer is never right, and you are never far away from the next laugh.

The original series was written by John Cleese and Connie Booth, with Cleese masterminded this stage adaptation. The choice of narrative sees three of the most popular and timeless episodes from the series and having their strands weaved together to create a cohesive story while recreating many of those iconic moments that have made TV audiences howl with laughter for nearly 50 years. Having Cleese on board with the structure of the play ensures this doesn’t feel a world away from the TV show despite being a different beast altogether.

Cleese and Booth’s writing was hilarious in the 1970s and is every bit as funny to this day with carefully crafted stories, punchlines and visual gags staying mostly true to the original setting. Of course not every element will have aged as well, but certain lines from the show have been removed or tweaked but never to the extent of detracting from the comedy. Fawlty Towers is not a show you go to for an emotional journey or a life-affirming lesson. This is a show you go to for a good old laugh and God knows, we could use one of them at the moment, given all the awful events in the world right now. I can’t recall ever hearing an audience roar with laughter as much as I did at this show, nor do I remember the last time I personally laughed as much as I did. Some of the finest comedy that has ever been committed to a TV screen loses absolutely nothing played out on the stage. In some aspects, it even elevates it.

A key element to the enjoyment of Fawlty Towers is in its nostalgia. The laughter, applause and murmurs of approval every time a character appeared bearing a striking resemblance to their TV counterparts clearly brought people back to their younger days. During the show, I had John Cleese in my eyeline and the way he beamed at the events of the stage, reminiscing of his youth was a feeling shared by many across the audience. That said, there is enough here to satisfy anyone not familiar with the original show as it is, at its heart, a farcical laugh-out-loud comedy in itself, where no knowledge of the situations or characters is needed. Younger audiences who love The Play That Goes Wrong will find themselves howling along with the older generations in the audience.

Caroline Jay Ranger’s direction takes the source material and finds ways to make it play out on stage to the best possible effect. Faithfully recreating moments that have transcended generations to become a part of popular culture, she also finds new ways to tell the story, bringing something fresh to the narrative. The lack of rigidity to recreate the show completely with no room to move is one of the reasons this show succeeds so well, as it doesn’t try to mimic the TV series, rather extend its appeal to a new medium and attempt to add something new and different to it. Ranger’s knack for stage comedy must also be commended as her direction ties in to the writing to create comedy gold, particularly in the show’s chaotic final scene which had me in hysterics.

Liz Ascroft’s set design is like stepping in to a time machine as she transports the audience to Torquay in the 70s in a beautifully realised and carefully detailed recreation of the hotel. While the TV show had the luxury of having different sets, Fawlty Towers on stage has to condense reception, the dining room and a guest room on to one set, which it does in fantastic fashion. The costume design is similarly exquisite, with actors uncannily dressed like the iconic characters they are based on.

The cast manage to carefully tread the balance of staying true to the characters from the TV show while also bringing a bit of themselves to the mix, each putting their own slight twist on the characters without straying too far from the original. Adam Jackson-Smith leads them as Basil Fawlty, stepping into John Cleese’s rather huge footsteps with ease. While Basil can be described as anything but charming, there is Jackson-Smith himself charms with a phenomenal performance, paying homage to Cleese while also demonstrating his own talents as an actor, particularly in his execution of comedy.

Anna-Jane Casey IS Sybil Fawlty… at least, that’s how it seems. In what doesn’t feel like a characterisation, Casey marvels in a note-perfect portrayal, with careful thought to every movement and mannerism, be it her walk, stares or that brilliant laugh. Victoria Fox gives a sweet and uncanny performance as Polly, while Hemi Yeroham is always hilarious in his turn as Manuel. The hotel’s guests are every bit as amazing too, with stage and screen legend Paul Nicholas delivering a small but mighty turn as the Major, and Rachel Izen in fine scene-stealing form as Mrs Richards.

I’m not sure what I expected with a stage adaptation of Fawlty Towers. I grew up watching the TV series and always find myself sitting down to watch a repeat when I stumble across an old episode. Though I thought I’d enjoy this on stage, I didn’t expect to love it anywhere near as much as I did. The comedy works incredibly well on stage, bringing belly laughs that can lift even the darkest cloud from above you. With careful thought and consideration given to how best to bring this to life in front of a live audience, it all goes off without a hitch – unlike the events at the hotel itself. A truly magnificent cast add to the already timeless and now freshened up writing to create theatre magic and the funniest show I have seen in years. While days at the hotel may end up a disaster, the stage adaptation of Fawlty Towers is anything but. Fantastic in every respect, I really can’t fault it.

Daz Gale – May 16, 2024