St James Theatre, London, until 17 January 2016
The family friendly festive fayre at the St James this season is a delightfully performed take on Jules Verne’s classic novel. The stagecraft is ingenious as Verne’s visionary novel is condensed over two hours and acts into a 19th century global panorama.
Virtually top-hatted throughout, Robert Portal is every inch the English gentleman, Phileas Fogg. Impeccable in both manner and manners, Portal captures everything that David Niven created on screen in the role, yet subtly updates and improves upon it for today’s audience. Alongside Fogg is of course his trusted French valet Passepartout and in another of this show’s inspired performances, Simon Gregor offers a masterclass in physical theatre. Gregor channels Andrew Sachs’ Manuel and Burt Kwouk’s Kato into his manservant, delivering a turn that is as thoughtful as it is occasionally slapstick. The kids will guffaw at his display of perfectly timed cocktail of idiocy, loyalty and occasional profundity, whilst adults will appreciate the genius of Gregor’s neatly nuanced genius.
Lucy Bailey’s work is always fun to watch. Her Titus Andronicus for the Globe (recently reprised after 8 years away and don’t be surprised if it’s back again) was a tragi-comic treat of the most gruesome proportions, defining Bailey’s knack for giving the audience what they want. Here and assisted by Anna Fleischle’s ingenious designs, this clever director does it again. Amidst a carefully crafted Heath Robinson-esque set, Bailey’s economically created trompes l’oeils are a delight. Carefully choreographed actors convinces us of swaying decks on steamers, whilst a funeral pyre, full size elephant and snow blown sled ride across frozen prairies are just some of the inter-continental delights she conjures up on the St James’ compact stage.
Elsewhere in the cast, Tony Gardner’s Inspector Fix is everything a Victorian copper should be, whilst amongst an ensemble that assumes a multitude of roles, Tim Steed’s Colonel Proctor is eminently believable.
A disappointing corner that has been cut by the producers is the use of pre-recorded music. The show carries an intelligent score, nicely global in its themes and quite piano-focused too. A live band (albeit costly) would only have enhanced the experience.
Whilst the show’s magic is good fun and the fight direction is fabulous too (credit to Darren Lang, Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown) Around The World In 80 Days is a world away from pantomime. The level of educated imagination that it (rather wholesomely) demands, suggests an audience probably best suited from Year 7 and up.
Above all, this is good, quality theatre – cleverly conceived and wonderfully performed. Go see it.
Runs until 17th January 2016