Tuesday, September 04, 2012


The Seagull Rep at Braintree Arts Theatre

Sitcom's answer to the tribute bands, troupes of civil servants, dinner ladies, Slade inmates and Home Guard volunteers tour the country, performing live what fans already have on DVD at home.

And now here's that famous Torquay hotelier, out on the road for the third time, in three more classic episodes recreated by Lowestoft's enterprising Seagull Rep.

This is as ambitious as small-scale touring gets, with an impressive, and versatile, set – swing doors, kitchen, reception, dining room – fourteen actors and half of a real red Austin 1100.

The central quartet worked hard to capture the ethos of those iconic tv shows: Nick Murray Brown was Basil, with a nice line in stress, blank stares, suede shoes and manic panic. Even more true to the original was Agnes Lillis's "little nest of vipers" – hair, voice, delivery and body language all scarily accurate. A likeable, youthful Manuel from Will Isgrove, and a pert Polly from Alison Collinge.

These last were also charged with covering the inevitable scene changes: I liked Manuel's caption cards; the warm-up before the show was a good idea too, though surprisingly ineffective. There was a 70s dress competition [for the audience], of which Katie was a worthy winner in an uninspired field, and a surreal moment when Polly did a lightning sketch of the innocent Tim for a 50 pence fee.

Many of the other familiar characters, hotel regulars and casual visitors, were represented. Roger Lee was both the Major and the pickled Greek chef, and Alan Bolton scored a neat hat-trick as Mr Twitchen in Gourmet Night, one of the Germans, and, mostly amusingly, as fussy little Mr Hutchison in The Hotel Inspectors.
And Archie Jennings, touring for the first time in his young career, made the most of the brat Raymond.

These pieces are masterworks of farce. They're not going to be the same in a thinly populated multi-purpose venue as in a packed, warmed-up studio. Pace is crucial, and there were one or two soggy moments here, plus the unavoidable drag of scene changes. So each 30' episode ran about 45'.

Most successful, I thought, was the complex, and arguably deeper, Gourmet Night, despite the challenge of switching from car to kitchen to dining room. And we all loved seeing Basil finally losing it and taking it out on his defenceless motorcar.

Braintree Arts Theatre is a newish venue, with ambitious plans for the future. It's good to welcome a fresh destination on the Mid-Essex cultural map. The audience seemed delighted with their evening out; the man behind me was hoping that Open All Hours might be next for the tribute treatment. Now there's a thought – I'm pretty sure it's not been done ...

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

Jim Hutchon caught up with the show at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford:
This is the company’s third foray into the world of Basil Fawlty, and I couldn’t help feeling that it was one trip too often to the well. The production wasn’t really fully adapted from TV, and the three episodes – The Hotel Inspector, The Germans and The Gourmet Evening – stuck too slavishly to the TV version to work on stage.

Nick Murray-Brown was Basil, impersonating John Cleese. He started off at full demented volume and pace and never gave the script a chance to modulate. Agnes Lillis was Sybil, who played her part with more subtlety and depth. Alison Collinge was Polly who brought a lot more to her characterisation. Best was Will Isgrove, who really got into the Manuel character and also filled the over-long unforgiving minutes of scene changes with amusing audience interactions.

Each of the episodes relied mainly on the audience’s anticipation of the climax moments – the humiliation of the guest, the goose-stepping silly walk and the thrashing of the car. None of them really met the audience's expectations and were rather damp squibs.

A lot is expected of productions as widely known as these, but I got no buzz from the outgoing audience after this production.

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