The set up of this "dining experience" is itself bizarre. It starts when you enter the Charing Cross hotel, a large, grandiose attachment to the station. As a Londoner you don't often step off the commuter bustle of the Strand into a smart hotel foyer and pad along a plush corridor. Within seconds you are transported from the city streets you know to an upstairs bar with, strangely, views over the station interior – you can see the departure boards announcing trains to Hastings.
As we mingle, we are joined by the cast: Basil, Sybil and Manuel, our hosts for the evening, and every bit as hopeless at it as they are in the telly series. This show, which has appeared in over 20 countries, was first started in 1997, when John Cleese, Prunella Scales and Andrew Sachs were all still young enough to have played the parts themselves. That's why it's spelled "Faulty" rather than "Fawlty". Artistic Director Alison Pollard-Mansergh wanted to be clear that this show is a tribute to the original, not a reproduction.
The characters might have found themselves lifted out of Torquay and plonked down in the West End, but fans of the telly series will find plenty that's familiar here. As we begin to be ushered out of the bar, Basil (Paul O'Neill) requests that Manuel (a naturally funny Anthony Clegg) collect the glasses, an order he responds to with alacrity, removing the spectacles of all those in the room. "Not those glasses Manuel – I'm sorry, he's from Barcelona – the glasses, the wine glasses!" Basil jumps in, apologising with an obsequiousness we all recognise, before cack-handedly returning the glasses to their rightful owners and trying on the odd pair as he does so: "You can see into the future with these ones!"
The tone is set effortlessly by the cast of three, as elements of different episodes are yoked together into a rough storyline which begins to take shape as we are seated in a large, opulent, but still suitably tacky, dining room. It's fun piecing together the bits you recognise. Sybil (played by a highly believable Laura Sheppard – she has the voice perfectly) scolds Basil for placing a bet on a horse, and Manuel hides his hamster from him. Basil: "Get it out of here, it's a rat, Manuel! R.A.T. rat!" Manuel: "No it's not, Mr. Fawlty, it's a hamster. R.A.T. hamster!"
There are lots of original comic touches too. A shriek went up in the room when someone found a set of false teeth (the comedy plastic kind) in their soup and I particularly liked Sybil checking her make-up in an audience member's shiny bald head. For the most part, such interaction is fairly subtle. The audience is perhaps not the usual participatory theatre crowd and those used to more challenging interactive experiences might find these Fawlties somewhat timid.
The balance between theatre and food might strike some as a bit strange too: on the one hand the poor-quality, very 70s food relies on theatre to justify the expense of the evening, but on the other hand, the drama revolves entirely around getting everyone served. There are certainly moments when the dramatic thrust wanes and you realise you are seated at a round table for eight with a group of strangers, eating substandard food: tinned soup followed by chicken, piss-elegantly arranged in gloopy gravy, and a cheesecake the texture of angel delight. But if there are times when it feel like an awkward seating plan at a family wedding, the magic of asking Manuel for some more bread, or having Basil struggle to open your wine, is nevertheless enchanting.