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Around the World in Eighty Days

by on 18 October 2017

Beat the Clock!

Around the World in Eighty Days

by Jules Verne, adapted by Laura Eason

Kenny Wax Entertainment, Simon Friend and New Vic Theatre Productions

at The Rose Theatre, Kingston, until 22nd October, then on tour until 20th January

Review by Mark Aspen

As they say “go no further”.  If you want to go round the world, take a train, boat or even an elephant or an ice-yacht.  But not a balloon … for as we are reminded “there are no balloons in the book”.  And this week you can start in Kingston.

The afternoon of the opening night, I had my l ‘flu jab.  I was told that this year’s cocktail protects against Hong Kong ‘flu, Brisbane ‘flu and Michigan ‘flu.  I needn’t have worried … Around the World in Eighty Days goes nowhere near Brisbane.   What I should have taken precautions against however are aching ribs and tear-stained cheeks from all the laughter.  Add in acrobatics, mime, martial arts, conjuring, dance, slapstick, music, busking and quick-fire wit, and the fun is frenetic and fantastical.

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A ripping yarn is Around the World in Eighty Days, but if you have read Jules Verne’s adventure novel (or perhaps less so if you have seen one of many film versions) you will that along the way you learn about geography, world customs, languages, navigation, timekeeping and the engineering of all sort of modes of travel.  However, in the hands of director Theresa Heskins and her multitalented performers and techies, Around the World in Eighty Days becomes a real rip-roaring ripping yarn.   Add all this together, and you get a lot of theatre for your money.

Did Phineas Fogg, the hero of the story get a lot of travel for his money?   The £20,000 wager with his chums at The Reform Club that set him off on his circumnavigation was a life changing experience, so damn the cost (even if it was his life’s fortune).   And so off we go with him … particularly for the audience in the front row who get swept up in the frantic goings-on.

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The phlegmatic Phineas Fogg is played with great aplomb by Andrew Pollard with the unflappable stiff upper lip required of the upright Victorian gentleman.  Pollard strides majestically through the play with great stage presence.   Pollard is Fogg, a man self-confident and self-possessed.

Fogg has one weakness…for gambling.  Apart from his eponymous wager, he is obsessed with whist, to the extent of not being really engaged with the places his visits, that is until it affects the timetable of his travels.  Then a mathematical precision kicks in and, aided by his Bradshaw’s timetable of trains and steamers, his confident computations set all the wheels in motion (for “anything that isn’t to be found in Bradshaw’s is not of interest”, such is Fogg’s focus.)

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And the wheels are cranked by his recently appointed valet and general factotum Jean Passepartout. (The previous incumbent was summarily dismissed for served tea a tad under the stipulated 97˚F !).   Although as determined and as indestructible as his master, Passepartout’s sentimentality contrasts with Fogg’s stoicism.  The rubber-jointed Michael Hugo excels as Passepartout, bringing a wide portmanteau of skills, including in martial arts and acrobatics and other circus skills, to add to talented acting and an ability to captivate an audience and dissolve the fourth wall.  Busking in character in the interval, he uses his improvisation skills (and cod French accent) to work the audience, which rapidly becomes his.  (He somehow smacks of a supercharged Gallic version the late Norman Wisdom.)

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Even this valiant and determined pair cannot take the unexpected into account, and their intrepid efforts are thrown off-course by distractions en route.  Passepartout, as the name suggests, has been (almost) everywhere, but his curiosity for the more doubtful aspects of local cultures causes more than a few diversionary adventures.  (You should see how he copes with the morning after a visit to a Hong Kong opium den!)  Meanwhile, Phineas Fogg’s     implacable imperturbability is severely challenged when he is joined on his travels by Mrs Aouda, an alluring young widow whom he rescues from ritual suttee in India.  Her subtle charms eventually melt his hitherto impenetrable carapace, but that is a by-the-by in this boyish yarn.  The travellers’ main impediment is a doggedly disruptive but dim-witted Scotland Yard detective, who has mistaken Fogg for a bank robber and is hot on their trail with a fistful of arrest warrants.

Dennis Herdman is a wonderful ubiquitous presence, popping up from the scenery, the shadows, the stalls, be it set in Suez or San Francisco.  As equally sinuous as Passepartout, but his nemesis, Fix is the metaphorical tripwire.  With his facial expressions and elastic presence, Hermann soon fixes Fix in the audience’s mind as the architype panto villain.

But Fogg is a beacon around which all scurry and no less than 125 characters are played by an indefatigable cast of eight multi-tasking performers in our frenzied romp across eight countries, on six trains, five boats, an ice yacht and an elephant.  (The jumbo is transmogrified from Fogg’s greatcoat, one of many ingenious transformations, many the results of cast improvisations in rehearsals.)   This is by way of four fight sequences and a circus performance, showing off their tumbling abilities.  The antithesis of hand-to-hand combat, the fights have a stage width between combatants, but punches and kicks are given and received simultaneously, sometimes in filmic slo-mo, one of many triumphs by movement choreographer, Beverley Norris Edmunds.  The pacing and timing is impeccable, and it has to be with many of the seemingly effortless visual effects, such as the sleight of hand conjuring as passports and banknotes flit back and forth between mimed throws and mimed catches, cued in flawlessly with James Earls-Davis sound design.

Around the World in Eighty Days is the epitome of an ensemble piece, with the cast (and stage management) working at high energy as one.  Versatile acting is a must when differentiating between so many characters, and the roles are portrayed with an amazing variety of languages, accents and stances.  Pushpinder Chani as the genial Mr Niadu, who accompanies the group as far as India; Joey Parsad as the ever-so-slightly mercenary elephant wallah; Matthew Ganley, ranging from hyper-competitive Col Proctor in the Reform Club, to a spittoon accurate Wild West cardsharp; Stefan Ruiz, as circus manger with gymnastic circus skills, then doubling as Captain Speedy, pressed into an all-consuming (literally as his ship is dismantled for fuel) trans-Atlantic voyage; and the circus skills of Jessica Lucia Andrade; all of these stand out as superior performances.

Then of course there is Mrs Aouda, the lady liberated from immolation on the funeral pyre, played with delicate appeal by Kirsten Foster as the woman who, all so gradually, finds a place in the heart of Phineas Fogg, finally bringing him to his knees in a proposal of marriage.  This is the subtle sub-plot … well, after all travel broadens the mind, even of a confirmed Victorian bachelor.

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But is Fogg’s unwonted diffidence because ostensibly he arrives back in London almost an hour beyond the allotted eighty days?  But no, Fogg is a man true to his word, and to his heart.  Moreover, there is a twist in the tale, due to an astronavigational chronometrology error.  (These long words are by way of a spoiler alert.)

Around the World in Eighty Days is delightfully non-PC.  Nationalities are impishly stereotyped: Frenchmen wear stripped jerseys and berets and carry baguettes, Egyptians fezzes and striped kaftans, Indians wear turbans and Chinese coolie hats.  Mrs Aouda has a slight dig at British colonialism (“it makes all the world the same”: nowadays that observation could be levelled against the EU).  All this is teasing good humour. (Although an audience member leaving after the show mumbled about offending Native Americans – no doubt a humourless Guardian reader.)  But then again the English sport bowlers and brollies!

The set itself has brollies balustrades up a suitcase staircase, and Lis Evans overall design is luggage … oh, and maps, lots of them, even on waistcoats and lino.  Everything is steampunk sepia (much in keeping with Monday afternoon’s Hurricane Ophelia’s sepia sky).

The fast and furious pace of the show is propelled by James Atherton’s music, especially composed for the show.  Its anxious ostinato and aerobic heartbeat tempo would have the most indolent armchair traveller out in the world in a flash, Bradshaw’s clutched under the arm.   For what is compelling about this show is the positive can-do attitude in our can’t-do world.  It is priceless.

The beat the clock race to that makes Around the World in Eighty Days gripping theatre runs a multi levels, making this a show for all ages, eight to eighty-eight plus or minus eighty years.

Before it leaves Kingston, make sure that you don’t miss the boat (or train, or ice-yacht, or elephant).  It goes at quite a pace, so hang on to your hat … and make sure it’s a bowler!

Mark Aspen

October 2017

Photography by Robert Day and Andrew Billington

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