John Cleese's Fawlty Towers: The Play | Review of the show hitting the West End © Hugo Glendinning
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John Cleese's Fawlty Towers: The Play

Review of the show hitting the West End

It’s easy to be cynical about the new West End incarnation of Fawlty Towers. Near 50-year-old scripts of a show that’s never off TV anyway dusted down and put on stage for no other reason than to keep a post-alimony John Cleese in anti-ageing treatments. As a known ‘brand’ it’s guaranteed to get an audience, comedy’s equivalent of a shameless cash-in jukebox musical.

But all those concerns evaporate when you watch it. For even if you know every line already, the show remains bloody funny. The script zings with brilliantly astringent one-liners as the tight farce careers towards inescapable catastrophe, the cast bringing the chaos to life with energy and pace. There’s a reason Fawlty Towers continues to top ‘best sitcom’ polls that goes beyond mere familiarity, and that laser-sharp writing is brought to vibrant life on stage. 

The cast don’t do much beyond impersonations of the originals, but nor do they have to, given how well-defined and well-loved the originals were.

Of course, memories are fond. There’s a murmur of excitement the moment the strings play the opening notes of Dennis Wilson’s distinctive theme tune and there’s an audible frisson when each character appears. They get warm, knowing chuckles just by being recognised. 

Fawlty Towers Basil

Adam Jackson Smith has the tall order of filling Cleese’s goose-stepping brogues. The key to Basil is not the fury, but the pitifulness, and he captures that splendidly. His grouchiness towards the customers comes from his thwarted ambition - he never foresaw his life to be chained to a struggling backwater hotel, trapped in an oppressive,  marriage. So when guests – like the infuriatingly monstrous Mrs Richards (a spot-on Rachel Izen, never turning her hearing aid on) – make their unreasonable demands, decades of frustration spill out.  

Fawlty Towers Mrs Richards

Jackson Smith best encapsulates the underlying pathos when begging with a man he thinks is a hotel inspector not to give him a bad review, so easily is this monster reduced to a whimpering wreck.

Fawlty Towers Manuel

Basil’s insecurities make him a bully, too, with Manuel, of course, bearing the brunt of it. Hemi Yeroham recreates the warmth of Andrew Sachs’ loveable striver, cheerfully doing his best despite insurmountable language difficulties, yet lumbered with being the foil for most of the wilder slapstick. 

Fawlty Towers Sybil

As Sybil, Anna-Jane Casey mimics Prunella Scales’ grotesque, nagging vanity from the very first ‘Oh I know!’ foghorned down the phone. And Victoria Fox, as the smart, capable Polly, is the spit of co-writer Connie Booth. The whole impressive ensemble have the tight timing the action requires, and never let the energy dip.

This 90-minute show seamlessly combines three of the original episodes, The Hotel Inspectors, Communication Problems (probably the most perfectly plotted half-hour of TV farce ever made) and – of course – The Germans. 

Fawlty Towers Germans

Save for the odd mention of Basil The Rat to foreshadow a new payoff – and the understandable exorcism of The Major’s most racist lines – very little has changed. And why would it? Fans want to hear ‘Don’t mention the war’, ‘I know nothing’, ‘herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plain…’ All that’s missing is a car being thrashed. 

Comedy is usually built on surprise, but there comes a point when playing the hits has its own appeal – while the pace here is such that even the keenest fan can get so caught up in the drama knowing what’s coming becomes irrelevant.

Without updating any of the action, Fawlty Towers now stands as a period piece about the frustrations of the post-war generation, though it is none the worst for that, just like an Oscar Wilde comedy is always going to be rooted in Victorian mores. 

Fawlty Towers Moose

Why bring the sitcom back? Or ‘What is the bloody point?’ as Basil might plead. That question is moot – as that decision was definitely less about art than business, including, perhaps, diverting audiences from the knock-off ‘dining experiences’ Cleese has previously railed against. But with masterclass-level comedy made as fabulously entertaining as this cast perform it, who cares?

• John Cleese's Fawlty Towers: The Play is booking to September 28. Tickets

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Review date: 15 May 2024
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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