BWW Review: AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, St James Theatre, December 3 2015
Phileas Fogg is an eccentric Englishman, fascinated by numbers, by science, by logic. Challenged by his whist playing buddies at The Reform Club to circumnavigate the world in 80 days, he raises the stakes to half his fortune (the rest of it will cover his expenses) and, with his resourceful valet, Passepartout, and a well-thumbed copy of Bradshaw's timetables for steamships and steam engines, he strikes off. I think we all know from the many adaptations of Jules Verne's tale that Fogg makes it back by the skin of his teeth, but the journey is the thing. And, in this stage version, the thing is how that journey will be shown.
I seldom remark much about sets or lighting (as I was once advised, "Who leaves a theatre whistling the scenery?") but the staging really is the star of this show. Director Lucy Bailey and designer Anna Fleischle, supported by lighting designer Chris Davey, create a wonderful sense of movement both in the scenes themselves but, crucially, within the wider context of the two-hour show. Below stairs (and visible to us) wheels spin, smoke billows and cogs whirr - there's a steampunk vibe at work, but it never overpowers the story. There's an urgency and continual transition in play from beginning to end.
The four principals are excellent in their roles, albeit each is as much a caricature as a character. Robert Portal (looking rather like the late Robert Palmer) thaws his initially coldly calculating Fogg in the company of travelling companion, the spiky, sensual Mrs Aouda (a well judged performance from Shanya Rafaat). If they carry the romantic element of the plot, the laughs are provided by a clownish Passepartout (Simon Gregor with his wobbly French accent) and Tony Gardner all but "'Ello, 'Ello, 'Ello"ing it as Cockney chancer copper, Inspector Fix. More than a word too for the support cast, of which much is demanded and much delivered in a variety of costumes drawn from around the world - super work from Lena Kaur, Liz Sutherland, Eben Figueiredo and Tim Steed (who almost steals the show as the cowboy Colonel Proctor).
Though not best suited to younger kids in the school holidays, teens and their parents looking for Christmas fare that isn't panto, should really enjoy this show (my 15-year-old and I did!). It's the kind of intelligent and sweet story that brightens the long midwinter nights and, with its vibrant, confident theatricality, quite unlike anything available on televison or at the multiplex. But hurry! You've got about half Phileas's 80 days left to see it!
Photo - Simon Annand.