If you were craving a hit of comedy nostalgia, where would you go? Perhaps you’d start with a ­streaming platform or – if you find it especially hard to let go of the past – your DVD collection. But nowadays somewhere else is ready to slake that thirst for comfortingly, familiarly funny TV: your local theatre.

Later this month, era-­defining sketch series The Fast Show will begin its nationwide stage tour, reuniting the original cast (Paul Whitehouse, Charlie Higson, John Thomson, Arabella Weir) to perform favourite sketches and discuss their ­memories of working on the show. It joins Drop the Dead Donkey: The Reawakening!, an updated ­version of the ­satirical newsroom-set ­sitcom that ran during the 1990s, which has already set off on its UK tour with most of the ­original cast. They’ll soon be joined by John Cleese’s stage ­production of Fawlty Towers, which is getting a five-month stint at the Apollo theatre from May (other 1970s sitcoms recently adapted for the stage include The Good Life and Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em).

This autumn, meanwhile, the musical version of Only Fools and Horses, written by Paul Whitehouse and late creator John Sullivan’s son Jim, is set to follow its West End run with a 30-city tour of the UK. In fact, the West End is ­becoming a home from home for retro British comedy, with Idiots Assemble: Spitting Image The Musical having had a four-month run last year.

The transfer of ­comedy from stage to screen then back again is nothing new (’Allo ’Allo! toured from 1986 to 1992, Bottom staged live shows throughout the 90s), yet the sheer volume of high-­profile TV-to-stage adaptations doing surprisingly good business in top theatres makes this very much a modern phenomenon. Only Fools and Horses: The Musical might have received middling reviews, but it was a ­considerable financial success, ­earning £8m during the first four weeks of its London run. Demand for ­tickets to An Evening With The Fast Show and Drop the Dead Donkey: The Reawakening! was such that extra dates have already been added.

What is behind the boom in shows based on vintage TV ­comedy? In one sense, it’s merely part of a much bigger – overwhelmingly huge, in fact – trend in ­contemporary popular culture: intellectual ­property, or IP. This is the tendency for new theatre productions (or TV programmes or films) to take inspiration from a well-known story, character or fictional world. That familiarity makes shows a safer bet, with theatres finding ­“security in the knowledge these will prove popular”, says Caroline Usher-Fox, marketing and communications manager of the Grand Opera House York, which is preparing to stage The Fast Show and Only Fools and Horses this year. The instant recognition factor is extremely helpful for an industry that is notoriously cash-strapped. As Steve Bennett – who runs comedy website Chortle and has reviewed many sitcom-to-stage adaptations – explains, theatres are “always looking for existing IPs so people can go: ‘I know what that is’, and it shortcuts the marketing.”

Satirical 1990s show Drop the Dead Donkey has been updated with a stage version featuring most of the original cast. Photograph: Hat Trick Prod./Sportsphoto/Allstar

Yet these productions chime with a more specific subset of the IP craze. At the moment, Usher-Fox is seeing “80s and 90s classics sell incredibly well”, with musical ­versions of Pretty Woman, Sister Act and An Officer and a Gentleman ­arriving at the opera house this year (musical takes on IP are particularly popular, a fact the Only Fools and Horses and Spitting Image shows took ­advantage of). That period of pop culture is proving particularly attractive, with comedy from the 70s, 80s and 90s being “an especially valuable bit of intellectual property because it appeals to a slightly older audience who’ve got some money to go to the theatre”, says Bennett.

As Usher-Fox says, “a thirst for nostalgia and familiarity” is clearly behind the appeal of these shows. With sitcom, that familiarity can run very deep. Cleese’s Fawlty Towers – The Play stitches together the plots of three episodes (it is seemingly based on a show staged in Australia in 2016), offering a chance for diehards to relive plot lines and dialogue they know off by heart (“It’s almost like karaoke,” says Bennett. “You sing along with them”). While the Fawlty Towers stage show will see a cast of young actors taking on classic characters, Dead Donkey and The Fast Show feature the original players, providing an extra layer of familiarity and yet more “reassurance they are in for a good night”, says Usher-Fox.

Fawlty Towers – The Play with Adam Jackson-Fox as Basil Fawlty and Anna-Jane Casey as Sybil Fawlty will be at London’s Apollo Theatre from May. Photograph: Neil Reading PR/PA

It’s worth pointing out that this cosy legacy is not ­necessarily at odds with the original tenor of these shows: comedy’s ability to provide comfort and reassurance doesn’t only come via a trip down ­memory lane. David Stubbs, author of Different Times: A History of British Comedy, explains that the element of familiarity is hardwired into many of these comedy programmes. “It’s often said that comedy is about ­surprise, but it is also about the predictable,” he says. “The Fast Show, with its catchphrases, was a brilliant exercise in comedy as predictability.”

But why not engage in an even more ­predictable activity by simply watching old ­programmes at home? One answer is these shows do something the source material can’t: provide an opportunity for connection with beloved ­performers and creators, and offer an experience of communal ­fandom and togetherness. “Audiences know they’ll be ­laughing in unison with a room full of other fans,” says Usher-Fox. something device-based streaming sorely lacks.

That highlights another dimension of nostalgia these shows tap into: a longing for the monoculture of yore. Older audiences miss “big, unifying pop-cultural ­television events from the days before ­multiple channels, streaming and the diffuseness of ­content”, says Stubbs. Nowadays “no comedy show is going to garner the sort of 20 ­million-plus audiences a Steptoe or Morecambe & Wise did.”

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Contemporary comedy – with its emphasis on “inclusivity, nuance, a sense of compassion, depth of character and a certain kindness” – is quite different from its forebears, especially in tone. Such programmes aren’t always “uproarious, are more esoteric and liable to alienate older viewers who grumble about ­comedy not being what it used to be, if indeed they come across these shows at all”, says Stubbs.

Paul Whitehouse and Mark Williams from The Fast Show. Photograph: BBC2

If the appeal for audiences is clear, the attraction for creatives is less immediately obvious. However, it has some connection to the ­parlous state of TV comedy – as Bennett puts it, there’s simply “not much sitcom being made any more”. In fact, in November Ofcom ruled scripted comedy an “at risk” genre for the sixth year running. Sitcom-to-stage shows could be “a way of getting to write something that they can get commissioned and get a go-ahead quite quickly”, says Bennett. “Whereas TV takes forever and there’s not much of it.” Even writers who have earned their stripes with several hits seem to be struggling: Kate & Koji, the last sitcom from Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin – the writers behind Drop the Dead Donkey and Outnumbered – got poor reviews, and was dropped after two series. And although John Cleese announced last year that he was working on a new television version of Fawlty Towers with his ­daughter, no broadcaster is attached (the BBC’s head of comedy expressed doubt about the project’s comic potential when asked), and it is unclear whether the reboot will ever go into production.

In artistic terms, then, are these stage productions the poor relatives of TV comedy? Despite their box-office successes, they have tended to attract lukewarm reviews, with ­critics praising the performances and staging but expressing disappointment in the scripts. Some struggle to outshine the originals, yet Bennett thinks the problem is often related to overly high expectations in the opposite sense. Last year he reviewed Idiots Assemble: Spitting Image the Musical, writing: “You might expect drum-tight material, but much of Idiots Assemble has a first-draft ‘will this do?’ quality.” Yet that is probably truer to the original programme than we might like to think. “People remember Spitting Image as being brilliant when it probably was pretty patchy,” he says. “You remember all the best bits.”

When it comes to the late 20th-century comedy canon, this shift to the stage seems too ­lucrative to die any time soon. Could it also be coming for gen X and ­millennial favourites? The naturalistic, ­mockumentary style of many of the best 00s comedies (The Office, The Thick of It) would certainly make it harder to ­translate them into big, ebullient stage shows. Yet comedy ­characters of the era are increasingly returning to ­theatres – Alan Partridge did an arena tour in 2022 and Garth Marenghi is now on the road, while Ali G is reportedly destined to join them – ­showing there is potential to mine crowd-pleasing live shows from ­postmodern comedy. It remains to be seen whether their cast and writers will embrace the trend, but it’s perhaps too early to take Peep Show: The Musical! off the table just yet.


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