Stepping into the shoes of a comedy legend like John Cleese is an unenviable task. His stiff upper lip on the verge of a nervous breakdown schtick, allied to some superb physical theatre, means his retinue of farce and razor-sharp one-liners are better experienced first-hand lest they suffer in translation.
As anyone who attempted to explain what was so hilarious about the School For Funny Walks can attest.
As such, Fawlty Flowers seeks to pay homage, rather than simply ape, what is considered the greatest British TV show of all time. For those who sadly came a generation too late, Fawlty Towers was a two-season sitcom which first aired in the late ’70s.
Over the course of just 12 episodes, it etched its position in comedy legend, regaling us with the quite absurd story of a Torquay Hotel who’s manager, Basil Fawlty, was forever needled into indignation by his aloof, but bossy wife Sybil, and their bumbling waiter from Barcelona, Manuel.
The title of this show riffs off the sign posting outside the establishment, which never seemed to say Fawlty Towers.
Considering the amount of exposition needed here, it would certainly help if you were a fan of the show when taking in Fawlty Flowers. A free-wheeling fusion of some of the most memorable scenes, it assumes that the nuances of context are a given.
As such, this stage adaptation trades as much on nostalgia as it does on the expertise of its cast.
In Mark Mulder and Annie Robinson, we find a curated playlist of the show’s most outstanding characters. Playing Fawlty, Mulder perhaps has it easier in this regard, although he does a smashing Manuel (regrettably all too briefly), and inhabits the drink-sodden Major with a schizophrenic twist.
A well-known face on TV, I barely recognised Mulder, such was his Fawlty transformation.
Let's hope Robinson enjoys playing dress-up because she turned it into an almost Olympic discipline over the course of the show. Via a merry-go-round of wigs, aprons and scarves, she played Manuel, the maid Polly with her naughty sketches, the French seductress who gets Basil all hot and bothered, and of course, long-suffering Sybil with her distinctive laugh.
With a set as frazzled as Basil’s disposition, the action doesn’t really go anywhere, so it’s a treat when the audience are there for the journey, rather than any presumed destination.
Already buffetted by their memories of the original, the laughs were already escaping any repression long before any punchlines where delivered.
This allowed the actors to play to the crowd, before Basil inevitably lost his composure, reminded the Germans about the war, and encouraged us all to pack and leave. Good fun.