“Have you ever actually sat on a chair before?” asked the head waiter suspiciously, looking us up and down while he ticked our names off his seating plan, before ushering us, somewhat dismissively into the dining hall. I knew I should have dressed up a bit, but being a Friday night at the Brook in Soham, I thought jeans would be the thing. Clearly not. Still, we got in, and got off lightly judging by some of the more caustic comments thrown at our fellow diners as they waited nervously to be seated.
So began the hilarious 2-hour tribute to Fawlty Towers (the BBC sitcom) we had come to watch – or rather to take part in. This internationally acclaimed show, which takes place over a 3-course meal, is a partially scripted performance, which interweaves many of the best moments from the TV series while cleverly playing off the audience.
Kevin Whittle plays John Cleese to a tee and we knew we were in for a treat when we clapped eyes on him sauntering round the bar ‘welcoming’ his guests with his trademark patronising surliness.
The real slapstick moments are reserved for Manuel, (Anthony Sottile) whose apparent poor grasp of English has him serving nuts at his guests (think tennis), while trying to get a particularly well-dressed couple to sit on the floor (“Manuel, seat the guests”). Sybil’s entrance (Karen Hamilton) – signalled by her shrill voice, notorious cackle and abundance of blue eye shadow- sets Basil‘s twitching neurosis off even further and the scene is set for an evening of organised chaos before the guests have even entered the dining hall. But the question on all minds was – what part were we actually expected to play?
Seated at a table with another couple from Cambridge, we sat quietly for a while, unsure whether we were waiting for food or performance, while sipping on our lukewarm white wine – in true Fawlty Towers fashion, the cooling unit had apparently not been turned on the night before, though something tells me this was more accidental than staged. After a few predictable comic moments we’d have felt cheated without – Basil trying to open a bottle of wine aided, from behind, by the ever subservient Manuel; Manuel helping a particularly attractive blonde lady to arrange her serviette comfortably on her lap – our starter (tomato soup with basil) was served, and we all tucked in, forgetting, for a short while, that there was anything untoward about our dining experience. That is until one of the diners discovered the chef’s missing dentures in her soup and all hell broke loose.
With lots of great off-the-cuff ad-libbing - where else but in Cambridgeshire could you call this crowd “toffee-nosed, carrot-crunching yokels?” – the cast soon had the audience eating out of the palms of their hands - quite literally in some cases.
Manuel’s pet hamster has his moment before disappearing under a table chased by Basil who re-emerges with a pair of lady’s knickers on his head to the steely glare of Sybil. Basil is bullied into testing out the fire drill which results in a man at table 5 being chased out into the street. (And he actually goes!) This is interactive theatre at its very best in which we all become unwitting extras in the show.
Nothing faulty about this performance which cleverly interweaves a script while the slick trio work the tables, making sure everyone in the room gets in on the action. For me, it was Basil’s surly brush-off when I asked for another bread roll, soon to be rectified by an overly-apologetic Sybil who grabbed a couple of uneaten rolls from our unsuspecting neighbours, and served them to me along with a confidential warning that while I didn’t look drunk (yet), I should be aware that the poppy seeds on my roll could show up as an opiate were I to be breathalysed. At least I escaped having my hair fixed with a fork by Manuel – although it turned out to be my fork he used.
Even the real waitering staff seemed caught in the middle of this slightly unreal reality, and they were clearly loving it as much as the audience once we realised that all that was expected of us was to have a good time. They certainly weren’t here for the food (think 1970’s slightly better than school lunches roast). While the pudding left something to be desired, the proof of it has to be that we could find no better way to end the evening than to turn on the DVD player the moment we got home and settle down to watch an episode or two from the original series. And what a pale shadow the actors appeared next to the real-life trio we’d had the good fortune to spend the evening with.
An absolutely not-to-be-missed show –believe me, you’ll never want to go to a ‘normal’ restaurant again after this experience!