Fawlty Towers is the beloved television show that charmed a nation and the world back in the 1970s when it first came to air on the BBC. And now John Cleese has teamed together with director Caroline J Ranger to bring this iconic show from screen to stage, starting at the Roslyn Packer Theatre ahead of a national tour.
Fawlty Towers first premiered in 1975 written by and starring John Cleese and Connie Booth. Set in Fawlty Towers, a small hotel in the seaside town of Torquay, the show follows the rude and obsequious Basil Fawlty as he attempts to run the hotel, alongside his nagging wife Sybil with the help of the collected chambermaid Polly and the hapless Spanish waiter Manuel. In Fawlty Towers Live, Cleese has adapted the screenplay for the stage, combining three of his favourite episodes into one narrative.
As the show opens, we are immersed in Liz Ascroft’s effective recreation of the TV set, the quaint Fawlty Towers hotel, cleverly compacted to fit to the stage, with Ian Scott’s lovely lighting that echoes of a 70s TV set. And the music is instantly recognisable as the show’s theme song. Immediately we are welcomed to this show as it is – Fawlty Towers on the stage.
Fawlty Towers Live delivers exactly as promised – bringing a live production of the beloved British comedy from screen to stage. And that’s it. It’s a funny, enjoyable recreation of an old classic and there’s nothing unexpected or new about it.
In bringing an adored show from 40 years ago to the stage, this production had the potential to make this show relevant to a new generation while still having remnants of the original for the adoring fans. Instead, this production steers clear of exploring the material any deeper or with any new insights. And frankly, for someone uninvested in the original – it is a little boring.
The comedy is deeply embedded in British farce of its period, and while some moments remain inherently humorous to a modern audience in a contemporary society, those moments don’t appear as regularly to a contemporary audience as they do to an audience of fans who recognise and love the show’s charm. And the plot – following the trials and tribulations of blundering hotel owner Mr Fawlty as he attempts to appease a series of eccentric guests, doesn’t beg any real investment in the stakes.
The cast effectively bring well-loved characters to life on the stage. They have moments of unique insights and expressions, but most of their quirks, actions and deliveries are straight from the original. Stephen Hall’s Basil lives up to the high expectations set by Cleese – nailing the physical comedy and ever teetering between unsympathetic to his guests’ eccentricities and grovelling to please potential hotel inspectors. Blazey Best’s badgering Sybil, Aimee Horne’s calm Polly and Syd Brisbane’s clumsy Manuel also live up to their on screen predecessors and have moments of refreshing originality. As do the rest of the cast as the many different hotel guests.
What does the show have to say to today’s audiences? How can we keep it fresh and alive while ringing true to its original? What drives the show and makes it engaging and worthwhile recreating in a modern time? This production doesn’t concern itself with answering these questions – it doesn’t attempt to delve any deeper than the surface, and in doing so produces a pleasant recreation of the original which is enough for most, but don’t go hoping for anything more.