Doing it like the Fawlties


“PLEASE don’t alarm yourself: it’s only my wife laughing, not a seal being machine-gunned”: Basil Fawlty (Mark Mulder) with his wife Sybil (Annie Robinson). Photograph courtesy Auto and General Theatre on the Square.

THEY’RE THERE, CONFRONTING you in the audience before curtain up in a polite and distinctly standoffish way, giving off love/hate hospitality vibes like only the British can do. He with his Bryl-cremed hair and moustache and awkward physicality. She with her guttural monotone guffaw, her frowzy wig and her telephone receiver, betwixt shoulder blade and ear. Yes, it’s Basil and Sybil Fawlty, of Fawlty Towers, a concept made pants-wettingly funny by its creator, John Cleese. Their stiff-upper-lip hilarity was a rich and priceless foray into the miens and hypocrisies of hotel culture in the 1970s. And here they are, on the boards in Sandton for another bout.

Trouble is, try as you might, to lose yourself in the hilarity of the moment, what Mark Mulder and Annie Robinson in the eponymous roles offer you in this play is a rehash of some of the series most famous funny moments, which you might well remember, they were so iconic. While the properness of the language is generally deft and tight and funny in itself, from time to time, Robinson’s accent slivers back into South African, which shifts the mood. And Mulder’s stage presence in its imitation of Cleese’s distinct body language, makes you nostalgic for a spot of ‘real Fawlty Tower’ mayhem, instead.

Having said that, this is not the kind of theatre that pretends to be flawless in its reflection on a bygone era or the sense of artifice it portrays. There’s a curious give and take between fictionalised events and real ones, between audience engagement and re-enacting stints from BBC tv. There are delicious ego shifting moments, which gives the confused Mexican concierge Manuel a lovely presence, not to mention the hotel’s extra hand, Polly, with all her shenanigans. And the guests who manifest out of coats on hangers and exchange gender and hats with aplomb.

But what this work begs for is a tad of fresh humour in the vein of Cleese’s Fawlty Towers. If you were a fan of the series and watched it ardently, you will be able to correctly predict almost every punchline in the script, which teeters with political-incorrectness as it gropes around with the sense of modesty and over-extended titillation that made television in the 1970s what it was.

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