Basil and Sybil Fawlty may not know the first thing about fine dining, but they’re unarguably great at entertaining their guests. Inspired by the nearly homonymous television series by the BBC (who has not licensed the use of the official title), Faulty Towers: the Dining Experience has toured 15 countries with an admirable recreation of the famous sitcom. In lieu of showgirls, aerialists and spotlights, Torquay’s most notorious hoteliers shower each other – and the audience – with farcical abuse and delightfully inappropriate tomfoolery.
The show’s premise couldn’t be simpler: a meal at the Fawlty Towers. Polly is unfortunately absent from the dramatis personae, but the three-strong cast is immediately recognisable as the other protagonists. Sybil nags away at her husband between bouts of braying laughter. Basil, in turn, fumes with slapstick exasperation at every request, liberally attacking a docile Manuel who botches his orders through absurd misunderstandings and gaffe-prone malapropisms.
The two hours that transpire between the time the actors greet the public at a makeshift bar and the final bow before dessert feel very much like being in an episode of the show. Gags are timed to give you just enough room to enjoy your food while it’s still hot. Even then, though, you might be disturbed by someone looking for a rat under your table, or surveying a suspicious German-looking guest next to you. Be prepared to give Manuel your seat so he can stop a draught from the window, and to join him later in a Spanish sing-along.
Audience participation is key to Faulty Towers: the Dining Experience. Allegedly, only a third of the show is scripted, which gives the cast plenty of time to improvise with guests. Sybil, for instance, does not care for leftovers, and scolded my companion for hers. While his wife was rather gentle, Basil would not get over my impudence when I asked for ice in my water, making oblique remarks and giving me the evil eye repeatedly afterwards (or perhaps he was alerted to the presence of critics).
That is all for your benefit. Quietly watching the actors let it rip at each other alone would be a sad waste in such an immersive show, especially when they ask you if everything is to your liking. Don’t give them a timid “yes”: make requests. Voice your complaints. Ask for seconds. Do mention the war.
Here’s one: the food was largely disappointing. The three-course fixed menu we were served consisted of potato and leek soup, then chicken and mash, followed by cheesecake (literally – I hope you were not expecting this to include burlesque). Vegetarians could replace the chicken and mash for an unimaginative, colourless risotto. The cheesecake, creamy and not too sweet, was satisfactory, but all other courses tasted as bland as they looked. Especially at these prices, even the most die-hard Fawlty Towers fan would find the menu a joke too far.
Episode references abound, but the show’s humour does not depend on extensive knowledge of the series. The cast’s antics speak for themselves, and quite eloquently. Faulty Towers: the Dining Experience revitalises the supper club formula with consummate performances and splendid comedy. This compelling extended farce by Australian company Interactive Theatre International ends its current season shortly before Christmas, returning in February. Its action may be limited to the dining room of the Towers, but it beats watching TV any day of the week.
Faulty Towers: the Dining Experience. Produced by Interactive Theatre International. Charing Cross Hotel, London WC2N 5HX. 26 October-22 December, 13:30 (Saturdays and Sundays) and 19:30 (Tuesday-Sunday). £43.50-49.50. faultytowers.net