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Fawlty Towers

Fawlty Towers: The Play, Apollo Theatre -

Lightning strikes twice

John Cleese’s sitcom masterpiece makes seamless transition to the stages

There are many definitions of bravery, and taking on the challenge of embodying John Cleese as Basil Fawlty in Cleese’s own stage adaptation of Fawlty Towers would undoubtedly be one of them. But Adam Jackson-Smith pulls it off with aplomb, deftly nailing Basil’s every acidic aside, outburst of impotent rage or episode of manic terror. Or, indeed, silly walk.

Prior to curtain-up, misgivings hovered about what the evening might hold. Could Fawlty Towers survive the transition to the stage without bathos or anti-climax? Could a new cast hold a candle to the much-venerated original team? Would it even be funny?

As the trusty Fawlty Towers theme, an easy-listening waltz of the kind once fashionable at tea dances on the south coast, trilled through the auditorium, a kind of alternate reality began to envelop the audience. A set depicting that familiar seaside architecture, that “Warty Towels” sign, the famous reception desk and dining room… We were back in the holiday destination from hell, a seething cauldron of chaos and despair hastily camouflaged under a grubby candlewick bedspread of gentility.

Then there were the characters, calling to us as from a Virtual Reality dream. That woman in a blue dress with the white pinafore, with the blonde hair tied in a bun, was the spitting image of Connie Booth’s Polly. Yet the programme notes identified her as Victoria Fox (no, she’s not one of those Foxes). It wasn’t really Prunella Scales’ Sybil Fawlty guffawing and cackling down the reception-desk phone – “Ooh! I know… Ooh! I know…” – but Anna-Jane Casey (pictured above with Victoria Fox) could be sued for a passing-off offence. And that guy dressed as a waiter obviously wasn’t Andrew Sachs playing Manuel, but Hemi Yeroham had his hapless hispanic tics and twitches and helpless exclamations of “qué?” off to a tee.

The show does exactly what it says on the tin – it takes Fawlty-world on to the boards and gives it live, three-dimensional flesh. It doesn’t try to update or rewrite the TV show, but instead has based itself on three of Cleese’s favourite TV episodes, boiling them down to their essence and re-connecting the wiring where necessary. It’s an object lesson in precision-tooled comic stagecraft, in an arena where you can’t edit, dissolve or jump-cut.

The tone was crisply set from the opening lines of dialogue, as Sybil and Basil snarked at each other about who was going to attend to the new customer waiting sheepishly at the front desk. Gradually, names from the Fawltian past began to stir and come back to life. Here was the pedantic and opinionated Mr Hutchinson (Steven Meo, where Bernard Cribbins once stood), demanding that Basil should order him a taxi, give him directions, and reserve the hotel television for a programme he wanted to watch. Basil’s caustic and supercilious responses were what you might expect from an especially resentful prison warder.

Basil’s tone switched abruptly to grovelling obsequiousness when it appeared that Mr Hutchinson might be one of the dreaded hotel inspectors, a thread that continued to spin through the narrative as the night wore on.

Other gems from the back catalogue included the cantankerous and selectively deaf Mrs Richards (Rachel Izen) and ditzy dowager duo Miss Tibbs and Miss Gatsby (Kate Russell-Smith and Nicola Sanderson), while Paul Nicholas did the regimental honours for The Major (pictured above). Perhaps inevitably, the Germans had been reserved for the play’s climactic scene, since the concussed, bandaged Basil’s deranged World War Two ramblings and cartoon goose-stepping are probably Fawlty Towers’ most relentlessly imitated moments.

But the evening’s standout moments came from a bravura reincarnation of the one about Basil’s little flutter on the horses, where he sent Manuel off to place a wager on Dragonfly. The consequences were a tightly-woven little farce-within-a-farce, as the winnings came, went and got passed around between various characters, with Basil the inevitable loser (pictured above, everybody).

The press night crowd loved it, and were obviously well versed in the Fawlty mythology. There are surely enough Basilophiles to fill the seats every night, though an interesting question might be whether somebody who’d never seen the TV show would get the point of the stage version. But if you have, you surely will.

Adam Sweeting – Thursday, 16 May 2024