‘Manuel, collect the glasses!’ shouts the irascible Basil Fawlty as he storms into the bar of the Kingsway Hall Hotel. We had gathered for what we thought would be a pre-show drink, yet any delusion that this would be your run-of-the-mill theatre performance is quickly cut short.
Spectacles are promptly removed from the noses of unassuming guests, a damning roll call is read out, and we are sent, one by one, to our assigned tables. The sense of apprehension that pervades the room as we walk towards our seats is fitting. This is, after all, Faulty Towers: The Dining Experience.
The show, inspired by the celebrated BBC comedy, is a dinner hosted by the programme’s leading trio – hotel manager Basil, his wife Sybil and their hapless waiter Manuel. The Kingsway Hall Hotel, unlike Fawlty Towers itself, offers elegant surroundings; the restaurant space, however, is appropriately muted, and provides the ideal setting for the immersion that follows.
Once we are seated, around tables of eight, the hosts begin hurriedly arranging our meals. The evening is structured around three courses, yet organisers Interactive Theatre International are keen to point out that the food is to be seen primarily as a theatrical device. We are reminded of this when, barely five minutes after our starter arrives, Basil storms in from the kitchen to announce that Manuel may have left something in one of the soups. Cue a shriek from a guest at one of the corner tables as a pair of dentures emerge, dangling from her spoon.
The hosts are consistently captivating. As they wander the room, it is easy to imagine you’re sitting in the infamous Torquay hotel. Sybil stalks the tables, maintaining order by lambasting her incompetent husband and showering audience members with condescending put downs. A highly convincing Basil scrambles across the room in an exasperated effort to clean up after Manuel. The frantic waiter, meanwhile, serves as a focal point, scattering cutlery across tables at random and taking time to abuse the supporting staff who attempt to bring order to the evening’s service.
The performance comprises a series of scenarios, some original and others based loosely on excerpts from the series, each following the other in a seamless string of chaos. For these scenes to be successful, audience interaction is key, and a highlight is undoubtedly watching Manuel mount a table and, excitement etched on his face, begin persuading a diner to raise two forks and impersonate a wild bull. Basil, meanwhile, is characteristically enraged upon discovering a table to be largely populated by New Zealanders, and Sybil takes a particular interest in the room’s Texan demographic.
It is all wonderfully fluid, something that is made even more impressive by the fact that two-thirds of the performance is improvised. We are never allowed to feel entirely comfortable for more than a moment, whether it is Manuel losing his pet rat among the tablecloths or Sybil screeching instructions in case of a fire (a sequence that clearly giddies up the Spaniard, who is seen racing for the extinguisher at a typically inopportune moment). What’s more, while allowing for surprises throughout, the actors ensure that cornerstone moments are delivered brilliantly. So when Basil eventually breaks into his infamous goose step routine, it feels like a fitting climax.
When proceedings come to an end, we take a moment to consider what we’ve just experienced. Two hours of riotous performance have evaporated in a flash, and as we descend the staircase of the Kingsway Hall Hotel, chattering amongst ourselves, it’s proof of the show’s engaging qualities. It’s not every day that calamitous service leaves diners with a smile, and anyone with an interest in Fawlty Towers, immersive theatre, or just plain mayhem would do well to make a reservation.
Faulty Towers: The Dining Experience is showing at the Kingsway Hall Hotel until 16 December 2017. To book tickets visit the website or call (+44) 0845 1544 145.
Check out Kingsway Hall Hotel’s Funky Venues profile here.