Fawlty Towers

Fawlty Towersby John Cleese & Connie Booth; dir Wendy Anderson
Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth
15 – 20 April 2013
Good

It’s a great formula. Find a hugely popular TV series of thirty or forty years ago, collect a bunch of actors who look something like the originals and get them to do an impression. Here we have three half hour episodes which few will not have seen at some time or other. Not any real acting involved, of course, but a promise of an evening of entertainment.

There are three well remembered characters from the original where some physical similarity is essential. Bill Davis seems about seven foot tall and has a manic instinct hard-wired into his DNA – Basil sorted.  David Draper, short, confused, improbably dark-haired and sporting the sort of moustache that wowed them in the aisles when Hitler was on the comedy circuit in the 30s is a recognisable Manuel. Most successfully recreated is Sybil. Jill Laurie not only has the hair and voice pretty well nailed, but also has a repertoire of mood, stance and movement that does full justice to the original.

Elsewhere there are moments to enjoy.  Miss Tibbs (Maureen Jones) and Miss Gatsby (Cynthia Anderson) have little enough to do, but make each second precious. Damian Storey offers three well defined ‘likely lads’ and John Fenner’s  crooked Lord Melbury was significant in making the first of the three plays the best.

Plenty of promise then, pity about the delivery. The evening simply became less funny once we had got over the pleasure of the identity parade. Basil never quite had the short fuse and danger of imminent explosion that John Cleese gave us. Some comic moments failed to deliver because of lack of clarity or precision in the timing. Some gags were so deliberately contrived that any pleasure in their realisation had gone. Where was the desperate invention to cover moments of potential embarrassment? Why was there not a gathering urgency as the story developed and became more improbable? The cast were clearly capable of meeting those demands and it can only be assumed that actors were left to ‘sort it out’ by themselves. Authoritative, competent, diagnostic direction would have made a real difference and, sadly, this can only be assumed to have been lacking.

If we are to make a judgement on the size of house then this has done well. Certainly the night that I was in, the theatre was close to full. Nevertheless I feel that I must be guided by the fact that laughs became fewer and less enthusiastic as the evening wore on. Relief that there was not to be a fourth episode was palpable.

In offering three stars I am steering a route between The Scylla of misplaced enthusiasm and The Charybdis of easy disdain for this theatre overtly aiming for the popular.

Dombey & Son

Another view

Good

Fawlty Towers is one of the best loved and most timeless of British TV sit-coms. There must be few people in this country who have not seen at least once all twelve episodes that were made. The modern availability of TV programmes via the internet also means that a reproduction on stage cannot be with the aim of reviving a lost classic. Instead it forms an opportunity for us to indulge with an old favourite. There is little room for innovation here; depart far from the TV episodes in characterisations and the audience are likely to be disappointed.

So what are the chances of substituting for actors like John Cleese and Prunella Scales? Well, this production does surprisingly well in the face of this daunting task, helped undoubtedly by some of those key characters having already played the same roles when The Talisman previously performed three other episodes from the series. Bill Davis does a remarkably good job of reproducing Basil Fawlty’s speech , mannerisms and expressions, although was a bit weaker in the manic moments and this did feel frustrating as time went on. Jill Laurie as Sybil Fawlty was also a good counterfeit and carried off her officiousness with ease, and her strident call of ‘Basil!’ and braying laugh were both very effective. Of the other ‘regulars’, David Draper’s Manuel and Tim Eden’s Terry reminded me most of their TV counterparts.

Three episodes were performed here, with intervals between, and there was freedom for a bit of interpretation of the ‘guest’ characters. In ‘A Touch of Class’, a con man under the guise of Lord Melbury (played with a suitable air of haughtiness by John Fenner), exploits Basil’s snobbishness in an attempt to con him out of money and valuables. In ‘The Hotel Inspectors’, an obnoxious spoon salesman (played by a suitably pompous Colin Ritchie) is mistaken for a hotel inspector by Basil. And in ‘Basil The Rat’, Manuel’s ‘hamster’ (played by one or more enormous glove puppets) goes on the rampage during a council food and health inspection.

All in all an enjoyable evening if you are happy to get into the spirit of the thing and accept that it won’t necessarily match the original.

Hari Kitson

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