Is there a Basil Fawlty in all of us? John Cleese’s memorable character from the TV show Fawlty Towers barely tolerates strangers constantly invading his seaside hotel.
Airbnb’ing my bedroom to offset the rent of an ageing Bondi Beach apartment, that is also home to a teenager and her menagerie of stray friends and pets, I feel Basil’s pain. And this is why, despite more than 40 years since its TV debut, Fawlty Towers Live works as a stage show: its timeless acidity about strangers sharing space really hits home.
Written by John Cleese and Connie Booth, and directed by C Jay Ranger, Fawlty Towers Live is an immaculately faithful stage adaptation of the legendary series.
Cleese has recreated the set and characters for Fawlty Towers Live (or Farty Towels as the hotel sign reads), banking on its nostalgia. But he premiered the play in Australia rather than in the UK because he was concerned the British press, “don’t like [him] very much” and would automatically pan it. There’s clearly goodwill here at the STC where, prior to the show, Cleese appeared in the foyer for a meet and greet, blinking in the flashes from smart phones cameras.
But Cleese doesn’t act in Fawlty Towers Live. Instead he’s passed the Basil baton to Melbourne actor Stephen Hall, who masters Cleese’s challenging comedic flexibility that defined Basil as much as his bitter wit (classics like, “Please understand before one of us dies” are available on Tshirts in the STC foyer for Fawlty fans).
Hall embraces Basil’s unrestrained rudeness so well that Basil has a new life of hs own, as do the other Fawlty Towers characters: Basil’s wife Sybil Fawlty (Blazey Best ); patient maid Polly ( Aimee Horne) – originally played by co-writer Connie Booth; and the lovable, language-challenged Manuel (Syd Brisbane). Fawlty favourites, the Major (Paul Bertram) and Basil’s nemesis Mrs Richards (Deborah Kennedy), also feature.
The material is an amalgamation of skits from the original show looped together to form a script hinged on a looming hotel inspector’s visit, with a rather abrupt ending. Cleese’s famous Fawlty Towers ‘don’t mention the war’ scene appears verbatim in the play as well as Mrs Richards’ complaining about her sea view, the originals of which are still viewed on YouTube. Today, she’d be writing something vicious on Trip Advisor or rating her Airbnb host one star.
Arriving home at my own Fawlty Towers late after the show, I found two teenagers in my spare room and tripped over a stray cat they’d brought home, named Yuki after the Airbnb’s guest’s dog that I hadn’t been informed would also be staying. Another stray teenager was asleep in the lounge room and two more in my daughter’s bed. My own bed was occupied by the AirBnB guest. Inspired by Fawlty Towers Live for a moment, I became Basil yelling, ‘Right. Right! You can all get out!” Perhaps I should have bought the Fawlty Towers Live Tshirt.
Fawlty Towers Live is at Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company, until September 18.