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Around the World in 80 Days

by on 18 May 2023

Clocking the Miles

Around the World in 80 Days

by Jules Verne, adapted by Juliet Forster

Tilted Wig and York Theatre Royal at Richmond Theatre until 20th May, then on tour until 22nd July

Review by Mark Aspen

Busy, busy, busy.  “This play is about the joy of movement … in every sense”, says Juliet Forster, the director of Tilted Wig’s high-energy version of Verne’s 1872 classic adventure story.  Appropriately for a tale about a race against time, here is a production that cannot stand still.  And stacks are packed into its eighty days as they are reduced to a couple of mad-cap hours.

This take on Around the World in 80 Days packs stacks of theatrical genres too, circus, spoof, pantomime, thriller, farce, travelogue and definitely physical theatre.  The inventive directorial force and dynamic cast leave even the audience exhausted. 

The concept of a high-energy spoof on Around the World in 80 Days has been tried before, but Forster, in her adaptation, has taken it several steps further on.

A circus ringmaster breaks the fourth wall to engage the audience with setting up the casting of a play based on the Jules Verne story.  Parts are found for the clown, the knife thrower, the trick rider and the ringmaster himself, whereas the acrobat gets “all the other bits”.   The acrobat rebels at this, and she proposes setting up an alternative narrative, that of Nellie Bly, a real-life American journalist, who pressured a New York newspaper into attempting to replicate for real Phineas Fogg’s fictional eighty-day journey.  Bly accomplished the journey during the winter of 1889-90, alone and with only a Gladstone bag, meeting Verne himself en-route, and astounded everyone who thought it could “only be done by a man”.   So, we end up with two plays-within-the-play, the journeys of fictional Fogg and factual Bly.

A circus big-top creates both the setting and the ambiance of the show.  Designer Sara Perks’ multi-level fairground circus set allows three-dimensional movement.  Its colours are of the Senyera, the yellow and red Catalan flag, and this vibrancy of colour follows through into the costumes.  They are bold exaggerations of Victorian attire, except for Nellie Bly, whose costume replicates in black and white the travel suit and cap that Bly wore throughout the whole of the journey.  The construction of the costumes is a work of art by Hazel Jupp’s wardrobe team at York Theatre Royal, as these had to allow for highly athletic movement, and quick-changes requiring much under-dressing.

There has been lots of outside-of-the-box thinking in propping this touring production.  A ladder variously becomes a carriage, a railway track or a ship’s rail.  Two bicycles, adult’s and child’s, become locomotives, steam engines or … bikes.  A fold-out ride-on elephant, emerging from a ladder and a cloak (its ears) and an actress’s leg (its trunk) is priceless in its ingenuity.  While all is enhanced by Alexandra Stafford’s lighting and Edwin Gray’s sound, nothing remains static. 

The promised joy of movement is delivered continually, and is epitomised by a scene on a see-saw as the, at-first credulous, Passepartout and Detective Fix have a battle of wits whilst getting increasingly drunk on gin.  Fix tries to delay Passepartout and both try to maintain their equilibrium, in all senses, a triumph of equipoise against inebriation.

As may be gathered from all this zany zip and zing, Around the World in 80 Days is very much an ensemble piece, and movement director, Asha Jennings-Grant clearly has had her work cut out to create the well-rehearsed “spontaneity” and choreographed “accidents”, which seem to just happen with well-oiled serendipity.  Nevertheless, each of the five actors put individual skills but equal energy into that ensemble, with each doubling their roles and more.

Alex Phillips (whom our younger, and there were many, audience members recognise from CBeebies’ TV show Justin’s House) takes on the roles of Phineas Fogg and of The Ringmaster, who acts as narrator for the Verne story.  Phillips plays Fogg with great élan and elegance, the epitome of the stiff-upper-lip, unflappable, incorruptible, and seemingly unmoved archetypical Englishman.  Resolute, in spite by all the mayhem that surround him, to his self-imposed task of circumnavigating the globe, against the clock, and against a wager of £20,000, most of his personal fortune.   Phillips authoritarian Ringmaster, though, is constantly exasperated by any tangential business as he tries to keep his narrative on track. 

Fogg’s character is neatly counterbalanced by his newly appointed French servant, the loyal and anxious to please, Passepartout.  Wilson Benedito excels in the role, offsetting Passepartout’s naivety and openness with his peasant wisdom and animal cunning.  It is the unlauded Passepartout who often saves the day.  Rubber-limbed Benedito doubles as The Clown, bringing an electric athleticism to the role. 

Eddie Mann takes on the role of Detective Fix, who would be the baddie, except that Fix is merely misguided.  He believes he is pursuing the perpetrator of a recent bank robbery, to the ends of the earth if necessary.   Mann’s doggedly determined detective, has a sub-rosa slinky stance and a whining drawl appropriate to a man for whom the perceived chase rapidly becomes an obsession.  Fix does his damnedest to delay Fogg within (the then many parts of) the British Empire, in order to serve an arrest warrant.  His damnedest always damns him as it inevitably backfires.  Mann’s contrasting role is the debonair Knife Thrower, whose suavely executed skills have not yet been honed to cutting edge precision.

One of Fogg’s many adventures takes place on the elephant ride, bridging an uncompleted section of the railway across northern India, when they come across a suttee, the one-time Hindu ritual of a widow immolating herself on her late husband’s funeral pyre.  This particular widow, Aouda, has no burning desire to join her late husband, and she is rescued by Fogg and Passepartout, thereafter becoming their companion on the rest of the journey.  Genevieve Sabherwal makes an alluring Aouda, vivacious and full of charm.  Thereafter, the question hovers whether she will melt Fogg’s impenetrable emotional armour.  The lissom Sabherwal also plays The Trick Rider exercising a whole range of nimble circus talents.

Meanwhile, the parallel real life story of Nellie Bly races alongside Verne’s fiction.  The versatile Katriona Brown switches effortlessly between agile acrobat and intrepid adventuress in the role of the grounded journalist Bly and light lithe role of The Acrobat.  As The Acrobat, and dressed in bodysuit and chaparajos, her tour de force is doing some sexy stuff with a bull whip, whilst decapitating roses and putting The Clown in parental peril.   Brown’s acting skills, however, are well displayed as the resolute and imperturbable Nellie Bly.  She relishes the flowing descriptive prose of Bly’s diaries, and teases out the psychology of Bly, the woman.  Bly learns a lot about the world, often unknown in the late Nineteenth Century, but also discovers some unrecognised corners of herself; witness when she is mesmerised by the attentions of geishas at a tea ceremony in Japan.  

The national stereotyping in Around the World in 80 Days is joyful, and is unfashionably unashamed (although there are a few barbs aimed at the Empire).  Jules Verne seemed to like the stoical Englishman typified by Fogg, although it is the Frenchman Passepartout, of course, who is the power behind the throne.

When Fogg returns to London, he appears to have lost his wager by minutes, but it is Passepartout who in the nick of time who discovers the chronological oversight and saves the day, in more senses than one.  In the meantime, Fogg’s sang froid is shattered by the charms of Aouda.  

And what of Nellie Bly?  She met her real-life challenge in 90% of Fogg’s fictional time and, possibly more importantly for her, proved that she was as good as, and better than, any man.   

Its, deceptively, ad-hoc feel and unpretentious touches, such as the hand-cranked scroll to remind us of the location, belies the carefully choreographed coordination and sheer hard work behind giving the production its slick presentation.  There is a simplicity and self-deprecating sincerity in this version of Around the World in 80 Days that makes for an exhilarating, entertaining and exhausting evening’s exploration of the joy of movement.

Mark Aspen, May 2023

Photography by Anthony Robling

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