Theatre Review: Fawlty Towers Live delivers a nostalgic and hilarious production to Sydney for its world premiere

After the Pythons re-united for a brief run of shows at the O2 in London in 2014, John Cleese and the team behind the show started thinking about what else might work on the stage. Cleese’s brilliant, all-too-short but totally classic series Fawlty Towers seemed to be the obvious choice, and they immediately began to work to adapting it for the stage. One thing led to another and Sydney, Australia became the home for the show’s world premiere, and two years later here we are, with the live stage adaptation of the classic British comedy series having officially premiered in front of a sold out room at Sydney’s Roslyn Packer Theatre last night.

Instead of trying to create something new with the loved (and hated) characters, much as they did with the Python O2 show, Cleese and director Caroline Jay Ranger (who also worked on Monty Python Live at the O2) rested their laurels on what came before. The philosophy: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The result are elements of three episodes of the original series brought together into a mishmash of hilarity, awkward moments and accidents involving moose heads. If you’re a fan of the original show, you know what’s coming, though the set up to interweave the characters and storylines makes them feel fresh – as does the Aussie cast’s take on the characters. Though with respect, perhaps I’m just enjoying the distance of time between myself and the last time I saw the series.

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Stephen Hall is brilliant as Fawlty – as task especially impressive when you’re having to play John Cleese in front of John Cleese, who does John Cleese better than anyone. Though the iconic Python seemed to confirm his approval by laughing louder than all of us during the show. Hall should know Cleese well, too – he played Cleese’s roles in the Australian production of Spamalot in 2007. His timing was excellent, and the ensemble cast behind him all brought on their own takes to the iconic characters, especially Blazey Best‘s Sybil Fawlty, who got away with adding just the right amount of Australian flair to her performance. Syd Brisbane was great as Manuel, and Deborah Kennedy‘s Mrs Richards reminded us all at just how frustrating that character was in its original incarnation – beautifully adding to every situation. Paul Bertram captured The Major perfectly while Aimee Horne was a spitting image of the original Polly and served the character well.

Looking beyond the excellent ensemble cast, who were well assembled by Lynne Ruthven, the staging was superb, cleverly bringing in two levels to the set, allowing Mrs Richards’ room to be on show, alongside the dining room, the reception, the office and a view of the rooftops of Torquay. It held true to the original series, with Liz Ashcroft‘s set design providing plenty of detail for fans, and allowing the comedy to develop very naturally in the space. Lighting design from Ian Scott and music cues from the original TV series helped pass time and break up the scenes, done simply enough to make sense of it, and elegantly enough to make it look good in the process.

The only way to possibly criticise the show is that fans will know what’s coming. The waves of laughter in the room before the punchlines hit was further proof of this – just knowing what was coming was putting a smile on our faces. Things are tossed on their head just enough, mixed around and reproduced for the stage, that it delivers fresh laughs – but you still know what to expect. That said, the way they brought all these storylines to a head at the end though was brilliant, and ultimately Cleese and the team found a way to bring back the best moments of the series which will please Fawlty fans and introduce new ones to its brilliance. And no matter what category you find yourself in, you will laugh. You will laugh until it hurts. Perhaps proof once and for all that this character and this series is timeless. Basil Fawlty will live together, first on screen and now on stage, and this is a show that fans of the series can’t afford to miss.

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Fawlty Towers – Live is currently in performance at the Roslyn Packer Theatre in Sydney until 18th September 2016, before touring Australia. For tickets and more details head HERE. The reviewer attended opening night on 20th August 2016.

Photo Credit: Nathan Atkins