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Review: ʻFawlty Towers’ tribute debuts in Toronto; don’t mention the food (Includes first-hand account)

Fawlty Towers is, of course, the immortal John Cleese sitcom about the world’s rudest, snobbiest, most prudish and most misanthropic hotel owner, Basil Fawlty, and his farcical antics with bossy, bee-hived wife Sybil, inept Spanish waiter Manuel and relatively normal waitress Polly. Rife with slapstick, misunderstandings and occasional bad taste, the series has remained popular and beloved worldwide — which explains the international success of Faulty Towers.

The latter, the touring production of which opened at Toronto’s Sony Centre for the Performing Arts on Tuesday, was originally conceived in Australia and has been selling out at the Edinburgh Fringe for seven straight years. It’s dinner theatre in its most literal form: you dine in a faux restaurant, served by characters from the show, and watch them perform scenes during a three-course meal. Only 30 percent of the show is scripted, as the actors playing Basil (Benedict Holme), Sybil (Alison Pollard-Mansergh) and Manuel (Leigh Kelly) interact with the audience constantly, both as servers and players. (Imogene Miller Porter will replace Pollard-Mansergh from March 17 on.)

The best way to enjoy Faulty Towers: The Dining Experience is to remember that you’re seeing the comedy equivalent of a tribute band like The Musical Box or Rain. You’re required to employ a certain level of all-too-conscious suspension of disbelief: you know you’re not seeing the original performers, but rather gifted mimics, so the key is to let your imagination fool you into believing it’s the real thing.

Fortunately, this trio of actors makes that process easy most of the time. Kelly’s bang-on impersonation of Andrew Sachs’ Manuel gets most of the laughs, while Pollard-Mansergh is a vocal dead ringer for the original Sybil; her ear-shattering shrieks of “Man-UEL!” and “Ba-SIL!” are probably more Prunella Scales than Prunella Scales was, if that makes any sense. And although Holme doesn’t look much like Cleese, he’s got Basil’s body language and many of his facial expressions down perfectly — including that nauseated fake smile Basil puts on when he’s pretending to be friendly to you, but really wants to stab you in the ear.

The scripted material retains some of the flavour of Fawlty Towers, focusing mainly on Manuel’s silly linguistic misunderstandings (he performs a somersault onto a dinner plate on the floor after being asked to put a roll on a plate) and Basil’s attempted deceptions, although a few jokes are bawdier than those of the original series. (Basil: “What have you got between your legs?” Manuel: “I have nothing between my legs!”) It includes reworked versions of gags and situations from the classic episodes Communication Problems, Basil the Rat and, of course, The Germans. Sadly, Holme’s rendition of Basil’s infamous “funny walk” doesn’t come anywhere near the stage-hogging insanity of Cleese’s goosestepping, but you can’t have everything.

Depending on your most fondly remembered moments from the TV show, you may spot a few missed opportunities. I would have liked to see some reference to the “damn good thrashing” bit from Gourmet Night, but then again, where would Basil find a tree branch inside the restaurant? And Sybil’s “Oh, I knoooooow!” refrain would have been welcome during her chats with the audience members, but I didn’t hear it. On a brighter note, Basil’s glorious, casual physical abuse of Manuel is there, albeit in spurts of obvious stage-fighting.

Another missing ingredient: why no Polly? In a way, Connie Booth’s straight-woman role was what held the series’ plots together — she was the sensible, reasonable one balanced against the crazies — but she makes no appearance in Faulty. (Pollard-Mansergh told me, in character as Sybil, that Polly was at her “art class” when I asked her.)

I didn’t care much for the meal, but as I’m not a food critic, I may be talking out of my league here. With a starter of squash soup, followed by a main course of plain, boneless chicken breast on top of mashed potatoes and slightly crushed green beans, it reminded me of the dullest dinner fare available in lesser British pubs. (Note: there are also vegetarian and gluten-free options.)

Faulty Towers: The Dining Experience isn’t exactly five-star theatre, and it certainly isn’t five-star cuisine either. It’s still fun, as long as you’re willing to play along with it. Hardcore Fawlty Towers fans will probably enjoy the evening for what it is, then forget about it the next day. Those unfamiliar with the original BBC series may be inspired to check it out after getting a taste here (it’s easy to find on DVD, and VisionTV airs the reruns once in a while).

Still, as good as these performers are, they can’t match the inspired, frenzied hilarity of the original; as Manuel might put it, you cannot “learn eet from a boogk!”

Faulty Towers: The Dining Experience runs at the Sony Centre’s O’Keefe Lounge until April 12.

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