REVIEW: Around the World in Eighty Days, St James Theatre

Phileas Fogg (Robert Portal) and co. Photo credit: Simon Annand.

Running throughout the festive season, and up until 17 January, Laura Eason’s high-spirited stage adaptation of Jules Verne’s beloved Around the World in Eighty Days features fifty characters, six trains, five boats, four fights, three dancers, two circus acts, one elephant… oh, and the music of jazz composer and multi-instrumentalist Django Bates. Tamsin Collison reports on the escapades of Phileas Fogg and co.

From the first steam-train whistle of a boiling kettle onwards, the pace never lets up as a dextrous company of eight actors tumble their way across the globe in this skilful adaptation of Jules Verne’s breathless adventure story. Director Lucy Bailey and designer Anna Fleischle have clearly taken their inspiration from the relentless countdown that drives the action along. Their set, resembling an antique theatre with its internal mechanics clearly visible, is framed by a scattering of cogs and wheels, reflecting the way that the precise Phileas Fogg’s clockwork life is utterly derailed by the characters and obstacles he meets on his journey around the world.

On a bare stage, successive scenes are conjured with the inventive use of a few basic bits of furniture, leaving plenty of space for some very clever sound and lighting design, and for magic, illusion and puppetry. The fateful card game at White’s club involves some very accomplished sleight of hand. A table, parasol, air-conditioning pipe and pair of pillow cases transform into an instant elephant. Trapdoors facilitate stage effects and serve as extensions of the set. Django Bates’ deft and witty music transports the characters seamlessly from country to country, weaving-in a ticking motif which keeps the crazy wager to the forefront of the audience’s minds throughout.

The cast. Photo credit: Simon Annand.

As the imperturbable Phileas Fogg, Robert Portal is the steady rock at the heart of the whirling action. Fogg’s lack of emotion makes him hard for an audience to warm to, but Portal manages to make him very likeable without losing his essential quality of cool detachment. It’s a treat to watch him slowly thaw out over the course of the evening. Simon Gregor’s Passepartout works a bit too hard to charm the audience into submission, but soon wins them over. The rest of the ensemble play key characters such as the dogged Detective Fix (Tony Gardner) and the charming princess Aouda (Shanaga Rafaat), plus a multitude of brief cameos as elegant English aristocrats, crumbling foreign consuls, vociferous market traders, gun-toting American bandits, etc.

The non-stop action is seamless and the story barrels along. One slight reservation is the opium den scene, which makes for a rather confusing end to Act 1 for the younger children in the audience who were baffled as to why Passepartout was in peril and what was happening in there. On the whole, however, they were as captivated as the rest of the appreciative audience – except for the moment where (spoiler!) Fogg finally gets to kiss his princess, which drew protesting “Eewww”s from several seats in the house amid a general chorus of soppy, satisfied “Aaawww”s!

This is a cracking adaptation of a classic story, fizzing with energy and invention, performed by a impressive ensemble, and underpinned by Django Bates’ economic and atmospheric score. An accomplished production, in every department, and a welcome alternative to the usual sparkly Christmas fare. Highly recommended.

Booking and further information at St James Theatre
PREVIEW/INTERVIEW: Django Bates on Around the World in Eighty Days

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