Having started my week by virtually visiting the opulent Regency splendour of the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds for Being Mr Wickham I thought I would end it the same way by returning for a homegrown production which they are offering on demand. Around The World In 80 Days is best known for the iconic 1956 David Niven film rather than the original novel by the prolific French writer Jules Verne; this version seeks to restore the original storyline to the centre of the narrative but does so with one playful eye on the theatrical possibilities where much is left to the audience’s imagination.
Adapter Toby Hulse has used the same template from which Patrick Barlow’s version of The 39 Steps was formed, although this show is perhaps less consciously self aware and aimed at more of a family audience. The story of the very English gentlemen and his French valet Passepartout traversing the globe in order to win a bet provides enough dramatic impetus not to need tampering with.
Further jeopardy is introduced in their dogged pursuit by Inspector Fix of the Yard who believes that Fogg is a gentleman thief who has made off with the proceeds of a bank robbery. He needs to arrest Fogg on British soil and tries to impede the former’s progress at every turn while the warrant is still arriving. It’s a salutary reminder that in the days before electronic communication everything took an age and also just how much of the globe the British Empire used to cover.
The journey takes place on many sea vessels, trains, a handful of horse drawn vehicles, atop an elephant and all these are represented in some way or another though as this is a show that makes its small budget a central feature don’t expect a spectacular procession of transportation.
The trio of actors use movement assisted by evocative lighting and sound to convey the actual travel and after the first few minutes it is easy to buy into this conceit and go with the flow. The one definite element that is missing is the film’s hot air balloon (it was never in the book anyway) although much mention is made of it; if you hang on long enough though you will be satisfied. Some of the sections are necessarily truncated with many skips forward in time in order to fit everything into the 100 minutes running time but as we can’t see the scenery of the places visited this doesn’t really matter and keeps the plot motoring along nicely.
Each of the actors takes one central role and supplements this with any number of others assisted by assorted headgear, rudimentary costume additions and a whole succession of (curiously British) accents. Even Passepartout does not sound French – as he repeatedly explains, he has travelled around a lot. Roddy Peters in this role is the most accomplished at the required clowning and, in one scene, changes back and forth between his main character and a consular official so often it is quite exhausting.
Oliver Stoney makes a suitably upright and correct Fogg but is, fortunately, able to let rip with a number of other characters throughout. Inspector Fix is portrayed by Naveed Khan who seems condemned to play the straight man until he also has to double as the rescued Princess Aouda. She then disappears below decks for most of the story so Khan can concentrate on being other people. I was surprised that more was not made of the comic potential inherent in the doubling necessity, though when it does come it makes its mark. I lost count of how many characters the threesome played throughout the evening – all I know is that there didn’t seem much room for them to take a collective breath.
Verne’s ending is a clever one and I won’t spoil it by explaining whether or how the bet is won. All I will say is that the script didn’t really explain it either (although there was a promise of doing so) which seems a bit odd especially if there were youngsters in the audience. This is a mostly gentle, life affirming production which recalls an earlier (and easier?) age of grand travel. No need here for closed borders, constantly changing traffic light designations for countries, quarantine, tests, seven hour waits at border control and all the other elements which threaten to derail any travel plans. With the world the way it is at the moment, I shouldn’t be surprised if, currently, a circumnavigation wouldn’t take 80 days still.