Fawlty Towers: The Play at the Apollo review: energetic and loyal adaptation of Britain's greatest ever sitcom

Adam Jackson-Smith and Hemi Yeroham in Fawlty Towers: The Play (Hugo Glendinning)
Adam Jackson-Smith and Hemi Yeroham in Fawlty Towers: The Play (Hugo Glendinning)

The lines, the laughs, even the accents and intonations of the greatest British sitcom ever, Fawlty Towers, are present and correct in this efficient and energetic stage adaptation, but it’s an oddly soulless affair.

John Cleese’s ragefully impotent Torquay hotelier Basil Fawlty is uncannily reincarnated by Adam Jackson-Smith. We delight in his barely edited 1970s rudeness, his hubristic comeuppances, his abuse of hapless Catalan waiter Manuel… but it feels like an exercise in zombie nostalgia.

Ex-Python Cleese co-wrote and co-starred in the two peerless series of the sitcom with his then wife Connie Booth, who played Basil’s resourceful and complicit helpmeet Polly. Here he has spliced together three famous episodes: The Germans and The Hotel Inspectors from 1975 and Communication Problems from 1979.

The scripted and visual gags are great throughout but the tumbling avalanche of misunderstandings between Basil, a deaf female guest, and the uncomprehending Manuel in the latter is a sublime piece of writing.

Culture warriors can un-hunch from their keyboards. Two racial slurs historically uttered by the Major (played here with charming abstraction by Paul Nicholas) have been expunged but there are still plenty of era-specific jokes about dragonish wives and “the Japs”. Basil even proves – of course he does – to have been a proto-Brexiteer, telling his baffled German guests he didn’t vote for Britain’s 1973 entry into the Common Market.

If anything, the problem here is that Caroline Jay Ranger’s production, overseen by Cleese, is too loyal to the source. As Sybil Fawlty, Anna-Jane Casey perfectly replicates the upwardly-mobile pretension, kookaburra laugh and Bride-of-Frankenstein hairdo of Prunella Scales’s original. Victoria Fox has the honeyed cadences of Connie Booth’s Polly to a T.

Jackson-Smith makes a young and handsome Fawlty but has Cleese’s ingratiating and violent mannerisms down pat, as well as his passive aggressive signature line: “Thank you SO much.” Conversely, Hemi Yeroham makes Manuel joyful, almost heroic, rather than the harried victim of memory.

The set and costumes by Liz Ascroft emphasise that this show is an act of remembrance, rather than a reinvention like fellow-Python Eric Idle’s musical Spamalot. The first half feels laborious compared to a 30-minute sitcom episode: the shorter second, where everything spirals in on Basil, is better.

I’ve got no problem with those of my generation and older taking a trip down memory lane, or with Cleese cashing in on a valuable piece of intellectual property. He is 84 now and wants to travel business class due to his 6’5” frame, which is fair enough for a man who has given so much to British culture (as well as to his ex-wives).

I’m a fan of almost everything Cleese has done apart from his GB News show, and I sat in the Apollo chuckling along, admiring the writing and the gutsiness of the actors, but also wondering if there were any artistic rather than purely commercial justification for this stage adaptation.

Apollo Theatre, to September 28; book tickets here