An homage to Fawlty Towers, or any other similarly adored institution of British television, is in many ways a safe bet at the Fringe. Such shows will always attract nostalgic fans of the original, wanting something recognisable and mainstream amongst the vast array of at times strange and bewildering offerings. In other ways however, it's quite a risky undertaking; they're aiming to emulate some of the finest comic performances, by actors who truly owned the characters they portrayed.
This particular production of Fawlty Towers is brought to us by The Chelsfield Players, and it's a brave undertaking for what is an amateur company from a village in Kent. The cast perform two of the original episodes of the original show - so needless to say the script is utterly wonderful, and they're starting with the benefit of something which is standalone funny. In a production like this, we don't come looking for a different and fresh interpretation of Basil; we want to see something we recognise, to laugh at the familiar scenes and scrapes, to enjoy the anticipation of knowing what gag lies around the next corner.
The first thing I am struck by in this production is the actress playing Sybil, and how incredibly well she mimics the voice of the original character played by Prunella Scales. I wondered if she was just off to a good start, but right through to the end of the show, her intonation, accent and speech is remarkably like the original.
Basil took a while to find his character, yet as the piece progressed I thought his physical comedy in particular was very good. He hadn't quite got the voice right - defter enunciation, and more of a pseudo-posh accent was required, particularly when speaking to Lord Melbury - but his energy was pitched well, as was his rise in frustration and rage. Manuel was played nicely and provided some good comic moments.
But there was also plenty of very amateur acting in the show, with a cast who varied considerably in terms of ability and talent. It would not be easy to mistake this for a professional production - the scene changes were clumsy and it lacked, but needed, a slick flow. There were also a great deal of unnatural-looking fake conversations going on in the background of scenes.
Although the scene changes weren't great, the actual design and staging of it worked very well, and costumes and props were all of a good quality too. And while much of the acting was weak, it was still well-rehearsed: rookie mistakes, like forgetting lines or being in the wrong place, were absent.
Overall the show was quite entertaining, and there was plenty of laughter from the audience (aided I'm sure by the material they're working with). You definitely won't be seeing the finest Fringe performances here, but you won't be seeing the worst either. And the highlight for me remains Sybil Fawlty's voice.