★★★½☆ Stage adaptation is faithful to John Cleese’s sitcom if not quite as funny.

Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney
August 20, 2016

As soon as the jaunty theme music for Fawlty Towers begins, there is laughter and instantaneous applause from the audience. Then more laughter, as the music (written by Dennis Wilson and inspired by Beethoven’s Minuet in G) continues beyond the few bars we know so well into something a little more discordant, promising a show that combines nostalgic familiarity with a twist of the new.

In fact, Fawlty Towers Live, written by John Cleese, is a resolutely faithful stage adaptation of three of the episodes that he originally co-wrote with his then-wife Connie Booth, who played Polly to his Basil in the iconic BBC sitcom. Familiarity is the name of the game, providing plenty of laughter of recognition.

Blazey Best and Stephen Hall. Photo by James D. Morgan

First broadcast in the UK in 1975, the idea for the television series was famously inspired by a visit to Torquay in 1970 when the Monty Python team stayed at the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay where Cleese was intrigued by the incredibly rude behaviour of the owner, Donald Sinclair. Fawlty Towers only ran to twelve episodes over two series but it has gone down in history as one of the greatest British television comedies of all time, familiar to audiences around the world from countless re-runs.

Cleese has interwoven the plots of Communication Problems, The Hotel Inspectors and The Germans (“don’t mention the war”). So we have the formidable, selectively deaf guest from hell Mrs Richards, the equally demanding, pompous Mr Hutchinson who Basil berates ferociously until fearing he is a hotel inspector, Sybil’s in-growing toe-nail, a moose head, a chaotic fire drill and a win on the horses that Basil tries to keep hidden from Sybil among other shenanigans all thrown into the melting pot.

Syd Brisbane, Paul Denny and Stephen Hall. Photo by James D. Morgan

British director Caroline Jay Ranger (who worked as an associate to Eric Idle on the Monty Python Live performances at London’s O2 arena in 2014) does a terrific job of replicating all the much-loved dialogue and stage business on a detailed, instantly recognisable recreation of the original hotel setting, with Liz Ascroft’s set design earning applause in its own right. Her costumes also have an instant ring of familiarity to them that delighted the opening night audience.

Cleese has been quoted as saying that he didn’t want a Cleese or Basil impersonator playing the hotel’s outrageously rude owner. Stephen Hall is no Cleese look-alike although he does have his height. He is a more benign Basil than Cleese, without the same degree of savagery. Cleese’s Basil always felt that so tightly wired that he could (and did) snap at any moment. Hall doesn’t have quite the same manic energy or shot-gun physical precision when it comes to all the pratfalls including the famous silly walk. As result there’s an edge and sense of danger missing with some of the comedy. Still, they are formidable shoes to fill and Hall does it his way, delivering the snarky dialogue in a manner not unlike Cleese but creating a gentler comic creation.

Blazey Best is hilarious as Sybil, nailing her nasal drawl, dirty laugh, pert walk, dry humour and bossy nature with immaculate comic timing. Syd Brisbane has hapless Spanish waiter Manuel down to a tee and nails all his comic business brilliantly. Aimee Horne is also spot-on as Polly, the unflappable chambermaid who keeps things on an even keel. Horne is a dead-ringer for Booth and gives an uncannily similar performance.

Aimee Horne and Syd Brisbane. Photo by James D. Morgan

Among the rest of the strong cast, all of whom do an impressive job with the English accents, Deborah Kennedy is a standout as the dragon-like Mrs Richards, with a fierce stare and knockout comic timing, while Paul Bertram is also excellent as the blustering, befuddled, slightly senile Major.

With the plots of the three different episodes all culminating at the finale of the show you’d think it would be riotously funny but the comic mayhem doesn’t quite hit the heights. Truth to tell, the television series is funnier. And it does seem a shame not to have taken the opportunity to put the characters into a new story. But there is still plenty of fun to be had in reliving iconic comic moments in a rollicking, live farce. With the kind of joyous laughter that comes from nostalgia and recognition, the show will doubtless find a large, enthusiastic audience.

Fawlty Towers – Live on Stage plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until September 18 and then tours to Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane

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