Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds – until 5 June 2021
So what do we need, to reopen a tiny Georgian playhouse in a time of continuing uncertainty, masking, distancing and wondering whether we’ll ever travel freely again? A bit of Strindberg or some challenging new writing about vitriolic divorce as a metaphor for global warming? Not in the view of CEO Owen Calvert-Lyons, who also directs. He kicks off the recovery season with a sprightly bit of reimagined Victoriana, a family show (ideal for half term, parents: there are actual facts in it about time zones).
So here are three guys playing 30 parts – reduced-Shakespeare-company or NT-Brent style – in an impressive variety of hats (toppers, bowler, Sherlock-style deerstalker, cap, fez and a very seductive veil). Their mission: to whizz through Jules Verne’s “adventure farce” in 90-minutes-including interval.
As virtual travel therapy (London-Suez-India-Hong-Kong-Yokohama-San-Francisco-NewYork) it whimsically reopens the world. As Imperial nostalgia it is full of unashamedly unfashionable paeans to Victorian technological pride and national arrogance: though artfully, all across the world they mainly find inappropriate accents from Scottish to Pennsylvania-Welsh. Oliver Stoney is mainly Phileas Fogg, Roddy Peters mainly Passepartout, and the misguided pursuing detective Naveed Kahn resplendent in a tweed Norfolk jacket in all tropics, as befits a decent Englishman of 1872.
I mentioned the Reduced-Shakespeare style – everyone playing too many parts and pretending dismay when it’s a problem and they should be meeting themselves – but Toby Hulse’s version, seen first in 2010, is less wild, gentler, paced for a broad variety of ages, and decently close to the Verne story. Amy Yardley’s set is terrific: evocative, flexible, witty, permitting everything from the Albany and a suttee to an elephant ride and train-roof chase (I think that bit needs strobe, but probably wiser not to do that when everyone’s feeling weird anyway).
They do not shy away from the culturally dodgy bit where Phileas Fogg decides to rescue an Indian princess from suttee. Would have been a shame if they had, because the glamorous Aouda is played first by a worryingly floppy dummy and subsequently to great effect by Kahn, flirting his layers of drapery with a will, albeit presumably on top of that sturdy jacket. He is the natural funnyman of the troop: it is hard to get enough atmosphere going as these distanced shows launch out into the post-pandemic world, but in that regard he did the heavy-lifting with aplomb.
I suspect that as it goes on some of it will speed up and audiences get used to laughing aloud again without fear of Shedding The Virus. But there was enough, ripples from below as I looked down from my lonely box. And once the kids start being brought along, released from a hideous year of teacher-on-screen and video games, they’ll laugh it to life. It deserves it, because even after the steamboat-trousers-off scene and the romantic denouement Yardley’s set has a big surprise, just to send you off happy.
box office www.theatreroyal.org to 5 June
Performed also at Southwold Arts Centre 8-12 June tel. 01502 722572
rating 4 family-show mice!