By BRUCE DENNILL
Fawlty Flowers / Directed by Paul Spence / Auto & General Theatre On The Square, Sandton, Johannesburg 5
Bringing a cult TV show to the stage is a tricky business, particularly when the source material was first broadcast in the Seventies. Fawlty Towers, built around both John Cleese’s notoriety at the time and his phenomenal armoury of physical comedy tics and unerring sense of comic timing, remains one of the most highly-rated TV series in history. But its vintage means that there are enormous audiences – in this case theatregoers – who have simply never heard of the show or who have, at best, little more than a passing familiarity with the characters and classic storylines.
The stage show Fawlty Flowers is an obviously affectionate homage to the BBC show, though it is made clear from the start that there are some aspects of the interpretation that will be starkly different. For one thing, it’s a two-hander, with Mark Mulder as Basil Fawlty (and other characters) and Annie Robinson as Sybil Fawlty (and other characters, including Manuel, the general dogsbody). This means that the quickfire tête-à-têtes that originally involved more than two characters are now limited to mostly Basil and Sybil, with sometimes slick and sometimes less so onstage costume changes needing to be incorporated into dialogue or covered by slightly awkward exposition.
Then, there is no set, as such. This is is planned – apparently random chairs, tables and hatstands are positioned in such a way as to suggest the layout of the famous, fictitious Torquay hotel, and wigs and items of clothing are draped within reach to allow Mulder and Robinson easy access when morphing into other characters. The audience is, conceptually, seated in the dining room of the establishment, underlining the non-existence of the fourth wall and making for some interesting and potentially unpredictable reactions should individuals find that they have been designated as a table of particularly grumpy diners or visiting German tourists.
All of these are workable challenges, and the actors’ ability and commitment to the concept keeps things ticking over well. Mulder’s mastery of many of Cleese’s (as Basil) movements and mannerisms is particularly impressive, down to a drooping eyelid when he’s especially miffed, and Robinson’s handling of the more prominent peripheral characters as well as Sybil gives her plenty of scope to show off her range of accents and attitudes.
However, there are several problems with the flow of the piece. Although connecting the actors and the audience has changed the feel of this show dramatically relative to the original, there are still efforts to re-enact many of the series’ most famous scenes. The scenes are all cut together, though, so there’s occasionally a jump from one place and theme straight into another without any context (particularly for first-timers to the material). It can be distracting to watch and it seems that it’s sometimes difficult to for the cast to sustain, leading to small dialogue and time hiccoughs.
Much of this is compensated for by the wonderful sense of nostalgia for the TV show that the action on stage encourages, which has audience members swapping memories during the interval and after the show.