John Cleese picks his Basil and Sybil for Fawlty Towers – Live On Stage

John Cleese’s hip and knee replacements might mean he can’t execute the physical comedy required of his most famous character Basil Fawlty for two hours, eight shows a week. But with the help of Stephen Hall, the snooty hotel owner will live again, on stage.

Cleese, 76, today announced that Hall, who played a series of Cleese’s original roles in the 2007 Australian premiere of Spamalot, would be playing another Cleese role, Basil Fawlty in the upcoming Australian tour of Fawlty Towers – Live on Stage. Hall is a veteran of stage and film comedy and has been a cast member of Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell for the last four years. He is also a former quiz show champion.

According to Cleese, he was picked from a shortlist of five potential Basils because he wasn’t impersonating Cleese’s portrayal of the wound up, stressed out hotel manager.

“Rather, you need someone who connects with the character emotionally,” Cleese said.

Hall said his approach to playing Basil Fawlty was to “put himself in his shoes and opinions”, though he added he would be taking yoga lessons to get his shin up to his chin for the silly walk. (Both men are about 193 centimetres tall.)

Basil’s wife Sybil, played by Prunella Scales in the TV series, will be brought to life by award-winning actor Blazey Best. Best is currently appearing in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Arcadia, and has performed extensively for Belvoir and Sydney Theatre Company, as well as roles in musicals Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Miracle City.

Based on the hit 1970s BBC sitcom, Fawlty Towers – Live On Stage will be adapted by Cleese from the original TV scripts (written by Cleese and Connie Booth, who played Polly in the series). It’s based on three episodes melded together, with new dialogue written by Cleese. It will include the “don’t mention the war” and the fire drill episodes.

Cleese said he chose Australia to premiere the show because of the quality of Australian actors, the popularity of the TV show here, and because he thought the theatre version would be better received here than Britain where he says the press dislike him.

“They are very skin-thinned and I don’t think I would get good reviews. We can also play with it and experiment here,” he said.

The cast will include nine actors with the remainder to be named shortly.

Times have moved on since the show was created and there is much more sensitivity about comic cultural stereotypes. So does this mean Manuel, the well-meaning but inept waiter would have to be played by a Spaniard?

Cleese would not say, but recalled that when the Spanish language version was first screened in Spain it disappeared after three weeks and months later returned with Manuel referred to as Portuguese.

Cleese said such cultural portrayals can be done with “affection or done nastily” but “there will always be the literal-minded” who are offended.

Fawlty Towers is regularly listed amongst the best TV comedies of all time and in 2000 the British Film Institute named the series Britain’s greatest TV show of the 20th century. The stage version comes after several producers have had commercial success with stage adaptations of other classic sitcoms including Yes Minister and Australia’s own Mother and Son. 

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There have already been a number of live versions of Fawlty Towers in Australia and around the world, but this is the first with Cleese’s involvement. It will be directed by Caroline J. Ranger (a British director who was an associate on Monty Python’s recent performances at London’s O2 Arena), with set design by Liz Ascroft.

Fawlty Towers — Live on Stage  begins performances on August 19 at Sydney’s Roslyn Packer Theatre before touring Australia, with seasons in Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane, and then to New Zealand. Main image of John Cleese and Stephen Hall in Melbourne today by James Morgan.

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