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Fawlty Towers review – John Cleese sitcom revival is the funniest show in town


Adapting a much loved television comedy series for the stage is a risky business. Theatre versions of Only Fools and Horses, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em and Drop The Dead Donkey have met with varying degrees of success. But when you take the greatest comedy series in British Television history you take your life in your hands. 

John Cleese may be a controversial national treasure but his alter ego Basil Fawlty is, ironically, faultless. 

Forty-five years after Fawlty Towers was first transmitted, Cleese has taken three episodes of his 12 part series written with Connie Booth and threaded them together seamlessly for the theatre in the heart of London’s West End.

The gang’s all here – Basil’s termagant wife, Sybil (Anna Jane-Casey), Spanish waiter Manuel (Hemi Yeroham), stealthily efficient chambermaid Polly (Victoria Fox), permanent resident Major (Paul Nicholas) and, of course, Basil himself (Adam Jackson-Smith).

By not adding anything new or making any concessions to fashionable sensibilities, John Cleese has kept the scripts largely intact to the extent that some audience members cannot refrain from shouting out the punchlines before the cast.

Director Caroline Jay Ranger ensures that the comedy timing is immaculate. Consequently, Basil’s various calamities appear both familiar and freshly minted – trying to hide his winnings from a horse race, misidentifying a hotel inspector, a messed up fire drill, a recalcitrant moose head and the arrival of German guests (“Do they outnumber us?”).

It has the accumulating momentum of farce because it is farce and the cast play it to the hilt, particularly Fox who channels Connie Booth with supernatural ease and Rachel Izen as the demanding Mrs Richards. But it wouldn’t work as well without a perfect Basil and Jackson-Smith is well nigh perfect. 

Combining the looks of Henry Cavill with the elastic physicality of Cleese, he pulls off the remarkable feat of not just recreating Basil but also embodying John Cleese as Basil. He nails the voice and the stance, the barely bottled apoplexy, the long pauses of utter bewilderment and the vitriolic asides so well you might be looking at the younger Cleese himself. 

While some may be disappointed at the lack of new material most of us will revel in the precision tooled chaos, the ever sharp wit and the chance to see Basil goose stepping across the stage. It’s the funniest show in town.

FAWLTY TOWERS THE PLAY IS AT THE APOLLO THEATRE UNTIL SEPTEMBER 28

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