Fawlty Towers, Haymarket Theatre Royal, 2024
Photo: Hugo Glendinning
  • Theatre, Comedy
  • Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue
  • Recommended


Fawlty Towers

3 out of 5 stars

John Cleese’s stage adaptation of his classic ’70s sitcom is a well-crafted replica that brings nothing new to the table


Time Out says

‘Fawlty Towers’ regularly tops polls of the best British TV comedies of all time. But in recent years, its co-creator and star John Cleese has become a lightning rod for criticism for his proclamations that so-called ‘wokeness’ is killing comedy. So, how does his stage version of hapless hotel owner Basil Fawlty – arriving ahead of his TV remake of the series with his daughter – fare in the ‘funny’ stakes?

From Liz Ascroft’s detailed, 1970s-in-aspic set design – encompassing the titular Torquay hotel’s reception, dining room and an upstairs guest room – to the elaborate coiffure of Basil’s wife, Sybil (Anna-Jane Casey), Caroline Jay Ranger’s production leans so heavily on nostalgia, it’s amazing that it doesn’t crash through the stage. Ranger has form in turning iconic British TV shows that live partly in people’s rose-tinted memories into theatre: she directed ‘Only Fools and Horses The Musical’ a few years ago.

As Basil (Adam Jackson-Smith) attempts to evade Sybil’s watchful gaze while dealing with barely concealed contempt with the hotel’s guests, we get a greatest hits parade of characters from the TV series’ two seasons. Theatre legend Paul Nicholas engagingly reanimates the absent-minded Major, Kate Russell-Smith and Nicola Sanderson wander in like extras from ‘Miss Marple’ as Miss Tibbs and Miss Gatsby and Hemi Yeroham gamely hams it up as the English-mangling Spanish waiter Manuel.

As Basil, Jackson-Smith has the piano-string tautness of the younger Cleese’s voice down to a tee – and while few could match the latter’s pipe-cleaner physicality, he admirably steps up to the litany of sight gags. Ranger captures Prunella Scales’s mannerisms as Sybil, even if she doesn’t transcend the character’s oh-so-’70s two-dimensionality in the same way. As waitress Polly, Victoria Fox brings the same air of efficiency (and transatlantic twang) to the role as series co-creator Connie Booth.  

In some ways, ‘Fawlty Towers’ is a natural for the stage: each episode is essentially a drawing-room farce, which draws on exaggerated English stereotypes in the same way as, say, an Alan Ayckbourn play. Post-Brexit, the vein-popping Basil, exasperated at his own sense of powerlessness, also feels very familiar. Time has given his admission – in lines taken from the infamous episode ‘The Germans’ – that he didn’t vote for the UK’s then-recent joining of the European Community a new spikiness.

But as Cleese is currently also adapting beloved past projects like Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ for the stage, this could simply be coincidence rather than design. It’s impossible to overstate how little this show tries to do anything new with its characters. The script is literally three TV episodes – ‘The Germans’, ‘The Hotel Inspectors’ and ‘Communication Problems’ – mashed together. Sybil’s ingrown toenail is one of a few meagre linking threads. As a result, the production doesn’t satisfyingly build up momentum: it stop-starts its way through gags.

And some of these gags – when shorn from the dusty gender politics that Cleese makes no attempt to update here – are funny, from the dining-room table lottery of ‘The Hotel Inspectors’, to the escalating confusion over the fire alarm drill in ‘The Germans’, to Basil’s buffoonish xenophobia in the same storyline. But, crucially, these already all exist in the TV series. We’re left anticipating old laughs rather than being surprised by new ones. You will have seen this show before you even take your seat. 


Apollo Theatre
Shaftesbury Avenue
£20-£110. Runs 1hr 50min

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