St James Theatre, London – until 17 January 2016
A LORDLY FOGG WITH UNDERSTAGE COGS AND A FAITHFUL FROG…
If you can’t face another panto (oh no you can’t) but want to share a treat with the young, this is one to head for: classic yet daft, constantly playful, even faintly educational if you insist (well, you could discuss Victorian Britain afterwards), and directed with holiday relish by Lucy Bailey. Whose designer Anna Fleischle has taken crafty advantage of the ultra-steep rake of the St James to create a glorious view into a pit in front of the stage: here are Heath-Robinson contraptions, bike wheels, cogs, brass levers, a piano, a kettle and innumerable small trapdoors through which hands of unseen workers briskly pass up – or take away – props.
As the auditorium darkens there is even a violent hissing and a steam whistle going POOP! on top of the proscenium. Thus the whole stage is a machine, with a stretch of treadmill for running along city streets. Later , with equally jolly home-made-looking adjustments, the framed stage becomes a train, various ships, and an elephant (big flappy sheet ears, flexible tubing, sound-effects). In a nicely pointed manner the Reform Club card-players who challenge Phileas Fogg to the high-speed (for 1872) circumnavigation sit right outside this vivid little rectangle, perched in high club chairs on the wall beyond the wings.
It is pointed because Laura Eason’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel is at pains to mock the mechanistic exactitude of the hero’s affluent clubman life: he sacks a valet in the first scene for delivering his tea three degrees too cold, thus enabling Passepartout (SImon Gregor, neatly nimble, every inch the French acrobat) to get the job. The fact that Fogg’s life is underpinned by others’ unseen efforts is indicated by the hands rising through trapdoors from below; sometimes the engineers on ships and trains huff visibly below him. Eason is also, the programme anxiously says, keen to point out that such Victorian Englishmen had an armour-plated sense of Imperial entitlement, and little respect for foreign cultures.
One’s PC alarm goes off at this, but in the event it gives Robert Portal, who looks very fine in snow-white spats, a lot of opportunities to be ludicrously stiff. These he takes with relish (I specially like his refusal to go and see the Pyramids because “I have seen it all in the journal of the Royal Geographical Society” and has a date to play whist. The gradual unfogging of this semi-autistic savant (he has Bradshaw railway timetables by heart) is surprisingly touching. And one of the best laughs (not in the script, I notice) is when he has hijacked the tramp steamer and the skipper growls “there’s something of the docker about you” and Portal replies “Sweet of you, but I think not”.
The journey itself becomes increasingly fun, as he is pursued by Tony Gardner’s gloomily deadpan policeman who thinks he is a bank robber, and encounters foreigners and rescues the glamorous Indian widow (Shanaya Rafaat) from suttee, in a stiff dutiful Baden-Powell spirit which she gradually melts. It reaches a crescendo in the second act with a stormy, noisy struggle across the Atlantic; there’s even a moment of cast clambering through the stalls (Passepartout panhandling afte rhe misses the ship home after being stuck an opium den), in which Gregor climbed over me in the matinee pointing to the notebook and shouting “Une critique! Une critique! Zey can close shows! Zis never closes!” .
But the physical comedy and the small supporting cast’s quick-change characeters t make it most fun and playful (children love shows which they think they can go home and do themselves, with sheets and an upturned kitchen table) . The various interludes on swaying decks are done with great precision and there are some priceless moments of deliberate upstaging , especially by Eben Figueiredo and Tim Steed, who are hilarious. It’s all just far over the top to reassure you that yep, it’s Christmas…
box office http://www.stjamestheatre.co.uk | 0844 264 2140
to 17 Jan