This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub
Squeezing a story as eventful and action-packed as Jules Verne’s Around The World In 80 Days into just two hours might sound as impossible a feat as Phileas Fogg managing to circumnavigate the globe in just two and a half months but, like Verne’s top-hatted protagonist, Lucy Bailey’s production attempts the impossible with confidence and style. Running at the St James Theatre until 17 January, Around The World In 80 Days is a fun-filled comedy caper for all the family that delights in its ingenuity and invention, but disappoints in its lack of polish.
Robert Portal is Fogg, an upper-class eccentric who runs his life with clockwork punctuality. He is a 19thCentury English gent through and through, but when, over his nightly game of whist, he is bet £20,000 that he cannot travel around the world in 80 days, he abandons his precise London life for a whirlwind, whistle-stop adventure that takes him from London to Bombay, Hong Kong, New York and elsewhere, via trains, steamboats and elephants.
As Fogg races from time-zone to time-zone, pursued by the inept Inspector Fix (Tony Gardner) on some trumped-up charge of bank robbery, and accompanied by his animated French valet Passepartout (Simon Gregor), he and his stiff-upper-lip begin to melt at the wonders of the world as he travels around it, particularly at the exotic Mrs Aouda (Shanaya Rafaat). The ensemble play caricatures more than characters, but all are well-drawn and well-realised – although the exaggerated accents do begin to grate after a while.
Writer Laura Eason has crammed Verne’s novel into a manageable eight-hander and, although some liberties are taken with the original plot, the piece’s self-aware silliness ensures that any of the more ridiculous inclusions – taking a sail-powered sledge across the continent of America, for example – are welcomed as imaginative additions, rather than disparaged as heinous literary crimes. There isn’t much coherency, but there are great dollops of inventive exuberance.
Imagination is also on display in Anna Fleischle’s beautifully versatile design and Bailey’s highly-choreographed direction. Fleischle’s set is like some great Victorian contraption, full of gang-planks and trap-doors. The majority of the action takes place on an elevated wooden scaffold, beneath which lies a cluttered, engine room-like space.
As Fogg and his companions hurtle around above, creating train carriages out of tables and steam-boats out of wooden stools, this sub-level of whirring cogs, belching steam and high-pitched whistles evokes their various environs perfectly. A serene stroll through Victorian London, a chaotic elephant ride through the Indian jungle, a drowsy evening in a Hong Kong opium den – all of this and more is conjured up with delectable originality.
Yet for all this, Around The World In 80 Days is not quite as enjoyable as it should be. All the components – ingenuity, enthusiasm and a cracking good story – are present to make it a rollicking success, as it will surely prove in time, but there is something missing at present. The cast are not entirely synchronised, the marriage of design and performance is slightly off-kilter, and Bailey’s production feels somewhat unpolished and under-rehearsed on the whole. The ingredients are all there, but the cake has not quite finished baking as yet.