Entertainment Stage Cleese fights Murdoch fire with Fawlty laughs

Cleese fights Murdoch fire with Fawlty laughs

Comedy legend John Cleese has brought his hit TV show to life on stage. Photo: AAP
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John Cleese has delivered a perfect two-shot counterpunch to a ham-fisted effort by the Murdoch empire to exact petty revenge.

First, he called out one of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers on an apparent plan to destroy his new show through a scathing review.

Then he delivered a great Fawlty Towers Live.

It seems Cleese caused consternation in the Murdoch camp last week, when he told an audience at his Sydney Opera House Q&A that Murdoch is a mogul who has abused his position of power.

That may have been the modern-day equivalent of mentioning the war to the Germans – it doesn’t really come as news to anyone, but it causes upset.

With his new Fawlty Towers Live show making its world premiere in Sydney on Saturday night, Cleese tweeted earlier in the week that Murdoch’s Sun newspaper was trying to recruit a reviewer to take a predetermined critical hatchet to the show that could be circulated around the world.

The problem with that plan was it required a reviewer. And it required something to chop up with the hatchet.

Neither could be found. The show is a sensation – delivering exactly what it promises – and the journalist leaked the approach to Cleese.

Don’t mention the show

In the end the Sun published a five-sentence report of the first preview bringing down the house, written by a London-based journalist.

The copy may be short, but it is accurate: The show has premiered. It was good. Very good.

John Cleese hugs on stage with Stephen Hall who played Basil Fawlty after their opening night at The Rosyln Packer Theatre on August 20
John Cleese on stage with some of the cast of the show on the opening night in Sydney: (L-R) Aimee Horne (Polly Shearman), Stephen Hall (Basil Fawlty) and Deborah Kennedy (Mrs Richards). Photo: Getty

Cleese has seamlessly combined the plots of his three favourite episodes of the beloved cult comedy series Fawlty Towers – ‘The Hotel Inspectors’, ‘The Germans’ and ‘Communication Problems’ – into one full length play, dashed with a few nods to other episodes.

It is a perfect example of the art of adaptation, maintaining all the elements and spirit of the source while taking advantage of the opportunities provided by the new medium.

It is also a great demonstration of the fact that great comedy can be timeless. There is, by definition, nothing new in this show, on one level, but this time capsule from Torquay in the 1970s is fresh, energetic and alive.

The cast are simultaneously eerily similar to the original Manuel, Polly, Sybil and Basil – the excellent Aimee Horne in particular is a doppelgänger for Connie Booth’s Polly – but each have made their character their own as well. Stephen Hall in particular swiftly goosesteps out of the shadow of Cleese to deliver a brilliantly bonkers Basil.

Stephen Hall plays bumbling hotelier Basil Fawlty in the stage show.
Stephen Hall plays bumbling hotelier Basil Fawlty in the stage show. Photo: Getty

Similarly, the jokes aren’t so much well-known as part of our comedic DNA. Much like the lyrics to Beatles songs it is impossible to have lived in Australia for the last 40 years without knowing just how funny the single word “Que?” can be.

Yet the joy, the brilliance, of Fawlty Towers Live, is that it breathes new life into the humour. Leaving audiences screaming with laughter once more at a bandaged-headed Basil impersonating Hitler.

Fawlty Towers was great. Fawlty Towers Live is great. And it’s great to see comedy and Cleese proving old jokes trump old moguls.

Fawlty Towers Live:

Sydney – Roslyn Packer Theatre, to September 18

Melbourne – Comedy Theatre, from September 21

Adelaide – Her Majesty’s Theatre, from October 26

Perth – Regal Theatre, from November 17

Brisbane – Playhouse, QPAC, from December 28

Watch one of the TV show’s classic moments below:

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