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Fawlty Towers the Play – Apollo Theatre Shaftesbury Avenue | Review

Eight years after a successful run in Australia – the country to which British comedies, and comedians, go to die – Fawlty Towers the Play arrives at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue. Wisely, rather than write anything new, John Cleese has adapted three – or is it four – of the television scripts that he and Connie Booth wrote back in the early 1970s. The result, which is certainly not “a play”, has all the carefully crafted comedy of the original, with the only real difference being that there are no close-ups and one or two lines have to be delivered at full volume. Not that any of that matters as every laugh is anticipated by more than half the audience anyway will have seen Fawlty Towers either when it ran on BBC Television in the early 1970s or in edited reruns.

The cast of Fawlty Towers The Play. Photo Credit: Hugo Glendinning
The cast of Fawlty Towers The Play. Photo Credit: Hugo Glendinning

Basil Fawlty, proprietor of Fawlty Towers was based on a hotelier that John Cleese met during filming for Monty Python’s Flying Circus. He drew on the memory for an episode of the 1971 series of Doctor at Large, ‘No Ill Feeling!’, in which Timothy Bateson played the fabulously tetchy Charlie Clifford, manager of Harrow’s Bella Vista hotel, and Eunice Black his frankly terrifying wife who morphed into Sybil Fawlty, played originally by Prunella Scales. Working with Connie Booth, Cleese then developed the idea creating a more realistic setting and fleshing out a cast of characters that could sustain a series. With 12 episodes of some of the best comedy ever broadcast, Fawlty Towers the Play could hardly go wrong. And it doesn’t, delivering a mashup of three of the best episodes, ‘The Hotel Inspector’, ‘Communication Problems’ and ‘The Germans’, added to which there is a hint of ‘Basil the Rat’ who, one suspects, might make an appearance in the follow-up sequel strongly hinted at in the programme.

So far so good. However, the difficulty with tribute acts, for that is what this is, is that the performers are often on different pages. That is the case here. As Polly, the maid-of-all-purposes at Fawlty Towers – Victoria Fox is excellent, delivering a pitch perfect impression of Connie Booth and sailing through the farcical happenings at the hotel as if in a “normal” play. Uncannily like Cleese, albeit clearly shorter, Adam Jackson-Smith is virtually the only member of the cast to make any attempt at characterisation and, as a result, he lifts his portrayal of Basil above a ‘Dead Ringers’ style impression.

At the other end of the spectrum, Anna-Jane Casey tries and fails to mimic Scales’ unique performance and Hemi Yeroham is completely character-free as Manuel – no longer is the Fawltys’ waiter smartly turned out, nobly trying and failing to fulfil his responsibilities, he’s simply a hopeless caricature, too lazy even to button his jacket, and – unlike Andrew Sachs’s original – not remotely lovable. Paul Nicholas – yes, truly, it is – simply steals the show, making one forget the brilliance of the original Major, played by Ballard Berkeley, and undoubtedly helped by the careful excision of some of the Major’s more appallingly racist and homophobic remarks. The rest of the ensemble cast do what is required of them but the director, Caroline Jay Ranger brings little to the production and, suitably for a poor hotel, makes a dog’s breakfast of the final scene which works less well than it should. A word too for the stunning set, which when not murked in gloomy lighting is something to behold.

3 Star Review

Review by Louis Mazzini

Basil – Adam Jackson-Smith
Sybil – Anna-Jane Casey
Manuel – Hemi Yeroham
Polly – Victoria Fox
The Major – Paul Nicholas
Mrs Richards – Rachel Izen
Mr Hutchinson/German Guest – Steven Meo
Miss Tibbs – Kate Russell-Smith
Miss Gatsby – Nicola Sanderson
Mr Thurston/German Guest – Greg Haiste
Mr Walt/Dr Finn – Danny Bayne
Taxi Driver/Mr Firkins/Mr Kerr/Mr Sharp – Neil Stewart
German Guest – Emma Fenney
Hotel Guests – Mia Austen, John Hasler, Dale Superville
Understudies – Ben Jacobson, Suzy Bloom

Written by John Cleese & Connie Booth
Adapted for the stage by John Cleese
Directed by Caroline Jay Ranger
Set & Costume Designer – Liz Ascroft
Lighting Designer – Ian Scott
Casting Director – Anne Vosser
Assistant Director – Denise Ranger
Resident Director – Chris Kiely

Following a tip off that hotel inspectors may be visiting and eager to impress, Basil attempts to ingratiate himself with guests that he suspects are there to critique the establishment. The situation is further plagued by a party of Germans, the deaf and dotty guest-from-hell, Mrs Richards, whose infuriating complaints prevent him from hiding a gambling win from his ever vigilant and bossy wife, Sybil. Together they run their hotel with a little help from the unflappable Polly, and very little help at all from Manuel, the trainee waiter from Barcelona who is the butt of Fawlty’s frustration.

Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue
Booking until 28 September 2024
Performances: Tuesday – Saturday at 7:30pm. Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday matinee at 2:30pm
Book Tickets for Fawlty Towers the Play


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