REVIEW: Fawlty Towers – The Play, Apollo Theatre

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REVIEW: Fawlty Towers – The Play, Apollo Theatre

Love and laughter abound for the stage version of the iconic sitcom

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Photo: Hugo Glendinning.
Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

John Cleese’s stage re-working of his hugely popular television hit, Fawlty Towers, oozes on to the West End stage like a particularly beautiful well-oiled clock (if clocks could be said to ooze). Every step and double-take has been buffed and polished to within an inch of its life, with a glorious lookalike cast dominated by the fantastically bendy Adam Jackson-Smith as Basil Fawlty.

We are in the 123-year-old Apollo Theatre, but actually the Apollo has gone to great lengths to remind us of the hideous design-free era of 1975 when Fawlty Towers first appeared on the BBC, even mocking up a Fawlty reception desk in one of the bars — which offer, for the run of the show, cocktails named for the cast. You could be drinking a lethal Sybil before entering the theatre proper.

Ah, Sybil. Prunella Scales, complete with a wig resembling nothing so much as a sample of Axminster carpet, created the role on TV; on stage, Anna-Jane Casey does not disappoint. The minute she kicks the evening off with that trademark cackle of Sybil’s, the audience was enslaved, reaching utter devotion as Sybil manages to render an entire phone conversation with repeated versions of “I know!”

Jackson-Smith inhabits the John Cleese role of Basil as though he were genetically engineered for it, while Hemi Yeroham, following in the footsteps of another Jewish actor, the late Andrew Sachs, brings delicious bewilderment to waiter Manuel’s signature cries of “Que?” and “I know nothing!” (Meanwhile, utter bewilderment to see one-time pin-up Paul Nicholas as the aged Major. I just hope there was a lot of make-up involved, as he has not worn well.)

It is — like the 12-episode TV original on which it is based — very funny, with both verbal and physical comedy. There is one early bit of “business” between Basil and Manuel, as the owner of the world’s worst hotel endeavours to make the Spanish waiter understand that he wants him to take luggage upstairs, which had me hooting with laughter.

But — and it is a big but — a lot of the enthusiastic response of the audience is dependent on the recognition of such cues as “Don’t mention the war” or “I am from Barcelona!” If you have never seen the TV shows, or watched the re-runs, such comic indicators will mean nothing at all. It was undeniably an audience of a certain age which filled the Apollo on the night I went, but I think the show is going to struggle to bring in younger theatre-goers. On the other hand, Cleese may have mined a whole new seam of comic theatre — and he even says he is ready to write another show based on other episodes of Fawlty Towers. Get ready to ping that reception-desk bell.

Fawlty Towers – The Play, is at the Apollo Theatre.




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