Please note: This review may contain possible spoilers.
Written in 1873, ‘Around The World In 80 Days’ is an adventurous and fun – filled world of science – fantasy. The book by French novelist, Jules Verne, is a quirky yet loving tribute to the Industrial Age. Following its national best – seller success, an English translation was released in the same year.
Since then, notable theatrical, film and television adaptations have included:
– a Broadway musical starring Orsen Welles (with songs and lyrics by Cole Porter),
– a blockbuster all – star motion picture headed by David Niven and Cantinflas,
-a five – hour mini series featuring Pierce Brosnan.
The story’s intriguing ‘beat the clock’ premise has also influenced the making of hit movies including ‘The Cannonball Run’, ‘Scavenger Hunt’, and ‘Planes, Trains & Automobiles’, as well as the popular reality television show, ‘The Amazing Race’.
Now playing for a strictly – limited season, this classic tale details the exploits of an eccentric Englishman named Phileaus Fogg. Though extremely wealthy, Fogg curiously lives in modest solitude. Further, his only social outlet of note is membership with London’s exclusive Reform Club.
Driven by a routine of mathematical precision, one day Fogg gets into an argument with fellow club members about a story in The Daily Telegraph. The article claims that, with the opening of a new railway track in India, it is possible for people to travel around the world in less than three months.
Soon, Fogg accepts a wager from them for £20,000 (or the equivalent of three million dollars in today’s money), that he could indeed, complete such a journey. Starting out on October 2, 1872 at 8:45 PM, Fogg needs to return to the club by the same time on December 21 (or exactly eighty days later) in order to win the bet.
With his journey’s wheels set in motion, he hires an assistant, Passepartout, and together, the two of them are on their way.
The story’s tension, however, is two – fold. Firstly, in a trip that requires countless modes of transport running to exact schedule, will Fogg be at the mercy of human invention?
Detailed in the story’s extended prologue, a secondary plot point involves a recent bank burglary. A thief matching Fogg’s description, has made away with the same amount of money Fogg is betting. A detective from Scotland Yard, Inspector Fix, is assigned to the job. Believing Fogg to be his man, it is the inspector’s job to gather enough collaborative evidence and bring Fogg home to trial.
Does Fix have a case? Will our man need to prove his innocence? With Fogg’s entire fortune, name and status on the line, this becomes the ultimate race against time.
There has been a trend of late in live productions where multiple characters in the one show have been played by a single actor.
Recently, chamber pieces like ‘The 39 Steps’, ‘Brief Encounter’, ‘North By Northwest’, ‘Titanic – The Musical’ and ‘Bond – A – Rama’ play on the brilliant idea of maintaining narrative continuity, yet injecting these productions with a topsy – turvy sense of appeal.
Watching performers leap from one role to another, often in a matter of seconds with either a change of costume, prop or accent, keeps not only them, but viewers also, on their respective toes.
Some touring productions rely on massive special effects to keep the story moving. The risk is the experience becomes an entirely passive one. Punters are left with nothing to do other than watch.
The above – mentioned examples however, highlight both physically theatrical stagecraft and multi – purpose technical design being brought to the fore. To paraphrase my astute ‘plus – one’ for the evening, such shows are also appreciating their audience’s collective intelligence. Companies are in effect, giving viewers both the gift of imagination and asking them to fill in any necessary gaps.
Produced by Helen Ellis, Aleksander & Susan Vaas, ‘Around The World In 80 Days’ is a charming entertainment which takes all of these elements on board and completely flies with them. Adapted for the stage by Toby Hulse with whip – smart direction by Terrence O’Connell, its appeal will be wide – reaching to theatre folk of all ages.
To use any of Pixar’s masterful series of films as an example, the show’s humorous narrative can be read on many different levels. Thus, the creative team in charge have built the perfect family outing, for both children and adults to equally enjoy.
Sharing an impressive list of television, film and stage credits between them, the trio of veteran actors fronting ‘Around The World In 80 Days’ bounce off each other with pantomime lunacy. This is almost like an insane theatre sports challenge of the highest order.
Ian Stenlake, with his matinee idol good looks, is the ideal choice to play Fogg. He imbues this gambling visionary with knowing confidence, superior wit, and fun to spare.
As his cheeky sidekick, Pia Miranda is Stenlake’s match as Passepartout. That the role was probably intended for a male actor in the original brief, gives her character’s focus an unexpected gender – bending twist. Miranda takes this delightful opportunity and completely runs with it.
Grant Piro is exceptional as Inspector Fix. A true character actor, his repertoire of facial and physical comedy is nothing short of priceless.
That the three of them also play dozens of minor characters with equal commitment, train conductors, travel agents or Indian royalty, just to name a few, is a credit to everyone involved. It was a pleasure watching this group milk every comic moment.
Merinda Backway’s sets are not only faithful to the period, they have a bright and funky Steam Punk appeal. Her oversized clock center -piece, is particularly striking. At one key point, a cleverly – camouflaged prop kicked into action, earning a well – deserved round of applause.
Smart costuming by Lucy Wilkins provides the clues required in identifying, establishing and building each and every character. Given the story’s non – stop pace, her colourful work also looks sensibly designed with quick changes in mind. (Lauren Ritchie was the milliner for the show’s striking prop hats.)
Jason Bovaird’s lighting, combined with composition and sound design from Dave Ellis, enhance the story’s overall mood. Their engineering works to great effect, particularly in some of the bigger scenes, such as when the characters come face to face with an Indian tribe. (It should be noted that additional sound effects were created by Michael “Mush” Brasser”.)
Fluid stage management is provided by Brasser and Janel Gibson, with production management by Merryn Tinkler.
With a running time of two hours (plus one twenty – minute interval), ‘Around The World In 80 Days’ is at the Alex Theatre until September 4. Go join the fun.