'Fawlty Towers – The Play' review – this new staged version of the legendary sitcom is joyful theatrical time travel

Read our review of Fawlty Towers – The Play, adapted by John Cleese, now in performances at the Apollo Theatre to 28 September.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

It’s heralded as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, partly because co-creators John Cleese and Connie Booth only gave us 12 pristine episodes across two short seasons. So, how does this new theatre version of Fawlty Towers fit into that legacy? Happily, it’s a lovely, and loving, addition: a well-crafted nostalgia trip for fans who want one more stay in that gloriously disastrous Torquay hotel.

Cleese has spliced together three of the series’ iconic episodes: “Hotel Inspectors”, “The Germans”, and my personal favourite, “Communication Problems”. There’s no attempt to modernise these 1970s stories; other than the removal of one particularly offensive anecdote, this is Fawlty Towers exactly as you remember it.

That makes sense, as Basil Fawlty’s psychology is wedded to the period in which he operates. He’s part of that era’s aspirational middle class, so he switches between obsequiousness with his seeming superiors and bullying, sarcastic contempt for everyone else. This brand of farce, building from comedy-of-manners to manic slapstick, is also very much of its time.

But it’s remarkable just how well the material holds up – and that’s due to the absolutely airtight scripts, with not a single word wasted, and some of the best punchlines ever written. My audience (which included a delighted Cleese on press night) was in gleeful hysterics. Few modern comic plays can boast such a reception.

Some of that response is the sheer thrill of recognising beloved lines – a bit like hearing your favourite songs starting up in a jukebox musical. Just a mention that “the Germans will be arriving” draws gasps and murmurs, while Manuel’s “I know nothing” and Basil’s “Don’t mention the war!” are greeted like old friends.

As are all of the actual characters, extremely well evoked by a tireless cast. Adam Jackson-Smith has the biggest challenge of matching Cleese’s indelible performance, but he gets impressively close to the clenched-teeth asides, outlandish physical comedy (his panicked miming of a horse’s name is brilliant, his concussion scene genuinely superb), and general martyred air of a man tried beyond all endurance.

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As Sybil, the wonderful Anna-Jane Casey is a dead ringer for Prunella Scales, from the way she settles in for a gossipy phone call (“Ooh, I know”) to getting her husband in back in line with a brusque “Basil!”. The pitch-black comedy of their fraught marriage is a great through-line. Casey also nails that braying laugh and sports a fabulous re-creation of Scales’s extraordinary badger-striped bouffant up-do.

Hemi Yeroham’s adorable Manuel plays younger and chirpier than Andrew Sachs’s original – an effectively contrasting energy here to Jackson-Smith’s weary cynicism. As Polly, Victoria Fox is a good sharp-tongued straight woman, and Rachel Izen has a ball with the rude, demanding, deaf-as-a-post guest Mrs Richards, who refuses to use her hearing aid because it runs the batteries down.

Paul Nicholas is both hilariously baffled and occasionally poignant as resident guest The Major, Steven Meo is perfectly infuriating as verbose visitor Mr Hutchinson, and it’s a pleasure to be reacquainted with the twittering duo of Miss Tibbs and Miss Gatsby (Kate Russell-Smith and Nicola Sanderson).

Caroline Jay Ranger keeps the pacing brisk and maintains the original’s zany energy and pin-sharp timing – no mean feat. That’s aided by Liz Ascroft’s clever near-replica set, which allows for ease of movement between the main locations: the hotel’s office, reception desk, lobby and dining room, with one bedroom upstairs. We even get the Fawlty Towers sign with its letters rearranged, à la the series’ opening titles.

The aesthetic is eye-wateringly Seventies: chintzy lime-green patterned wallpaper, Sybil’s purple skirt suit and giant-frilled blouse, Basil’s cardigan and cravat. Even the menu draws sentimental sighs. This is theatrical time travel of the most joyful variety.

Fawlty Towers – The Play is at the Apollo Theatre through 28 September. Book Fawlty Towers – The Play tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Fawlty Towers – The Play (Photo by Hugo Glendinning)

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