Fawlty Towers Live
Presented by: Michael Coppel and Phil McIntyre in association with Louise Withers
Many an amateur theatre company have staged productions of Fawlty Towers over recent years, taking the original 1970s television scripts and playing them back to back in order to create an evening of entertainment for audiences who delight in seeing their beloved classic on stage. But until now there had been no official stage adaptations of John Cleese and Connie Booth’s sitcom set in a Torquay hotel run by possibly the worst hotelier in England.
Thanks to Cleese’s divorce settlement from his third wife leaving him with significant financial responsibilities for seven years, recently he’s been back at work on stage in his ‘Alimony Tour’ of the world and Monty Python Live (Mostly) at London’s O2 stadium where he worked with director Caroline Jay Ranger and the idea for adapting Fawlty Towers for the stage emerged.
Rather than simply stitching half hour television scripts together, Cleese has taken his three favourite episodes – ‘The Hotel Inspectors’, ‘Communication Problems’ and ‘The Germans’ – and rather deftly interwoven them, so that all three plots conclude together in a big finale. The result is a much more successful treatment for the stage than a simple direct translation of the original scripts.
Besides the script reworking though, this staging is very true to the original series. The set design by Liz Ascroft incorporates the hotel foyer, rear office, dining room and an upstairs guest room, all looking very much as per their television inspiration. Likewise, Ascroft’s costume designs reflect their 1970s source material perfectly. Furthermore, the key cast all physically look very much like their televisual counterparts.
Making a habit out of playing roles originated by John Cleese, Stephan Hall (who played Sir Lancelot in the Australian production of Spamalot) is our Basil Fawlty. Hall’s height and the direction on his physicality evoke Cleese’s interpretation of the irritable hotel proprietor almost exactly. To his credit, Hall’s characterisation isn’t quite a mirrored replica of Cleese’s, instead delivering a character of heightened smarminess and gnashing frustration. They’re tough footsteps to follow in, but despite a lack of vocal projection Hall holds his own and carries off the highly choreographed slapstick required with great skill.
Blazey Best as Basil’s wife Sybil gives a performance that is, by contrast, entirely true to the original Sybil, Prunella Scales, while sprinkling over an additional level of class and composure. Best is a stylish actress and she delivers Sybil with all the poise and precision one could expect. From her very first “ooh, I know!” on the phone to her gossiping girlfriend, Best transports us straight back to 1975.
Likewise, Aimee Horne’s performance as hotel waitress and housemaid Polly, could be mistaken for a time-travelling Connie Booth (the original Polly). She is a unique character in comedy, a sort of ‘straight-man’ type role, keeping her head while all around her are losing theirs, and craftily always one step ahead of Fawlty Towers’ angry hotel guests, yet she still remains lovable. Calm and wily, Horne imbues Polly with the requisite voice of sanity, while ensuring to get all the laughs available to her.
As Spanish waiter and bellboy Manuel, Syd Brisbane is the perfect stereo-type of a jester. Such a beloved character is Manuel, that just his entrance on stage elicits a roar of appreciation from the audience. Brisbane carries the responsibility this creates with great care, and conveys all of Manuel’s highly physical comedy with precision timing.
In the large cast of supporting characters, there are many standout performances, but none less than Deborah Kennedy as the stone-deaf Mrs Richards. Kennedy is a well-known actress of great style and skill and that experience is all on display here, filling Mrs Richards with steadfast earnestness and sniper-like delivery. Kennedy is a delight. Also worth noting is Paul Denny as potential hotel inspector Mr Hutchinson, a performance delivered with such conviction that Mr Hutchinson’s red-faced blustering and indignation is positively explosive.
Fawlty Towers Live will satisfy lovers of the original television series as they get to relive watching their cherished favourite episodes come to life before them. If the production team set themselves the task of accurately replicating the TV show on stage, they’ve achieved it ably. Besides some the tinny and cavernous sound design, this is a stylish production.
As a classical stage farce however, Fawlty Towers Live doesn’t measure up to the best of that genre. The likes of Noises Off, Lend Me A Tenor, and One Man, Two Guvnors demonstrate how the requirements for sustained pace and exaggeration are higher in a two hour stage production than a half hour television show. Fawlty Towers Live often hits the side-splitting heights you’d expect but then they peter out for too long to maintain the energy required to leave them ‘rolling in the aisles’, and unfortunately Cleese and Ranger haven’t worked out how to create a sense of suspense for the end of Act One, leaving a rather anti-climactic transition to interval.
But really that doesn’t matter, audiences for this production are bound to be such fans of the TV show, that an accurate representation of the original is as far as expectations are likely to stretch. And on that promise, Fawlty Towers Live absolutely delivers.
Fawlty Towers is now playing at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne’s East End Theatre District.