Review: Society plays Fawlty Towers at its comic best despite the ensuing chaos

The cast of Fawlty Towers EMN-151118-094001001
The cast of Fawlty Towers EMN-151118-094001001
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Only this week I heard an ‘and finally’ news report that the actual hotel in Torquay that John Cleese and Connie Booth based the two TV series of Fawlty Towers on was about to be demolished. But the spirit of the Gleneagles Hotel lives on in Grantham, at least a few more days, at the hands of Grantham Dramatic Society.

Three classic episodes of the 1975 and 1979 series were brought to the Guildhall Arts Centre stage with all the pace and energy that these well known situations and well loved characters demand.

The audience seemed to be split clearly into those who knew exactly what the next scene or line was going to be, and those genuinely seeing this for the first time 40 years after it was first aired to a very different world. Not an easy task to pull off. But they certainly did.

Bringing the demands of a well viewed TV comedy, with it’s luxury of six different sets, to a stage of this size is no trivial matter, not without losing either the Reception, the Restaurant, the Bar, the Kitchen or, on occasion a, guest room or hospital bed. Everything was put in, including the rancid kitchen sink, and it has to be said the results often felt crowded by fittings and hemmed in by furniture.

However, it is hard to imagine how else they could have tackled this, short of wheeled and flown sets that would be more at home in the National Theatre. In the event, the cast coped admirably, taking our attention to the right ‘room’ at the right moment, and often spanning across them with polished aplomb. But crowded they were, and inevitably much of the action in the early party seemed to be trapped in a few square feet of the stage in front of the reception desk.

That all said, I get the impression that nobody in the audience really minded as, far more importantly, a love for the characters created by Cleese, Booth and the original cast was quite evident in the commendable performances put in by the players and producers of this ambitious production.

Every dramatic society production lives or dies on how well the ensemble comes together, with cast, crew and producers doubling up many tasks both on and off the stage. A glance at the credits in the programme (designed and produced by leading lady, costumier and props buyer Tami Brown!) confirms this to be true in this case.

On stage, the chemistry between Paul Meakin’s hapless Basil and Tami Brown’s long-suffering Sybil is palpable, with Brown’s impeccably measured understatement providing the king-pin for Meakin to spin wildly around, pulling in fine performances in his wake from Helen Pack (Polly), Silas Lee (Manuel) and the enjoyable Tony Lane as the eccentric Major. Throughout the evening Allison Allen and Gail Meakin make a fine job of that well-meaning, ubiquitous pair of elderly spinsters, Tibbs and Gatsby, with Lee Johnson ably covering cocky chef Terry, complete with almost permanent cigarette!

The first episode we are treated to is Communication Problems where even Basil is given a lesson in bad-tempered pomposity by Mrs Richards, hilariously played by Sandy Ford-Pain. You will know her as the lady who demanded everything and refused to use her hearing aid as it ‘wears down the battery’. The comic timing at play tells us all we need to know about the high standard we will come to expect for the rest of the evening.

Before the interval, we receive The Germans, the episode that closed the original series in October 1975. There is so much more to this episode than the unfortunate funny walk we all remember so well. The set-up is that with Sybil in the hospital (tended to brilliantly dead-pan by Geraldine Lee and Suzanne Slack), Basil can’t be trusted to run the hotel without a catalogue of escalating catastrophe. A moose head must be fitted up before Sybil returns, and the results of Bail’s rush job come back to him with what was quite literally the most jaw-dropping moment of the show. With Basil in hospital himself with concussion, the chaos shifts up a gear in the second half as he escapes back to the hotel and becomes abandoned by whatever grace and restraint he ever had. The resulting international incident is well documented!

The evening closes with the Basil the Rat, the last ever Fawlty Towers episode, broadcast in October 1979 after a delay due to BBC industrial action. This is the episode where Lee’s Manuel and Johnson’s Terry can fly the highest and most preposterous. Even after 90 minutes of Fawlty carnage, the cast continue to raise the absurdity stakes to amazing comic effect. Steve Sale’s dry performance as Mr Carnegie, the Health and Safety Inspector is pitched and timed perfectly.

With such a wonderful ensemble piece, presented by a Society that clearly had so much respect for the material and so much fun putting it on, it is hard to single out any one performance, and often unnecessary to do so. But for me it was Tami Brown’s Sybil that, like Sale’s Carnegie, proved the rule that great comedy starts with a great straight man. Or woman.