John Cleese is re-creating the world's worst hotel for stage – right here in Sydney
It seems almost miraculous that anyone could emulate John Cleese’s most iconic character, but Stephen Hall nails it – the feverish flailing of limbs, the clipped syllables, the manic mugging, as if to an invisible audience of gods, asking ‘Why me? Why must I suffer?’
You get what you pay for in this live version of Cleese and Connie Booth’s 1970s BBC sitcom, which draws intensively on and skilfully interweaves the episodes ‘The Germans’, ‘Communication Problems’ and ‘The Hotel Inspector’ (with a cameo from 'the rat’). Even the scene transitions – blackouts with the theme music – feel remarkably similar to the TV experience. If you grew up with the show, you’ll love how closely the cast of locals have recreated the characters – not in a stiff, clownish way, but as a thoroughly embodied live tribute.
Avid fans will also probably notice how the comedy has aged a bit: using language barriers for laughs (as with the hopeless – and hapless – Spanish servant Manuel), and the dynamic of henpecked husband (Basil Fawlty) and shrewish wife (Sybil Fawlty), feel a bit tired and unhelpful four decades later.
On the other hand, you can’t say that the show punches down on anyone, exactly: everyone in Fawlty Towers is a bit awful and a bit wonderful (and definitely shouldn’t be working in hospitality) – Basil is no hero, and Sybil is no villain; Polly is no angel – and even Manual, more than mere stooge, gets a moment in the sun.
The recreation of the show extends to the smartly cast extras (although you can’t help feeling like it’s a waste of Ana Maria Belo, who was recently so wonderful in the lead role of Ensemble Theatre’s production of Tribes, to play shaky octogenarian Miss Tibbs) and the set, which cleverly conveys the layers of the house and the locale – the not-so-sunny ‘British riviera’ town Torquay.
Is it a waste of time to turn something that worked so wonderfully on TV into a live stage copy? Maybe. But it’s a well executed situational comedy that still makes you laugh (possibly more so now, given that we know the show is based on an actual hotel and a real-life world’s-rudest-hotelier). And Cleese and his producers never pretended it would be anything different.