St James Theatre, London (****)
Just in time for Christmas, writer Laura Eason and Lucy Bailey have served up a phantasmagoric bon bouffe of festive delight. How on earth do you put on stage Jules Verne’s global adventure that in the famous movies had all the technical resources at their disposal but certainly not at the St James’ Theatre’s!
Against the odds, they’ve done it, by George they’ve done it. Bailey’s Around the World in 80 Days is a hymn to theatre’s infinite ingenuity and invention.
How else to describe Bailey and designer Anna Fleischle’s little short of brilliant accommodation of necessity, utilising the stage and its pit area as a working powerhouse of ropes, bells, pulleys and trap doors. Humour is in every pore of a production from a writer and director who have stuck fairly closely to the original, if forsaking its iconic balloon.
Bailey, it should be remembered, was artistic director of the iconoclastic Gogmagogs music group, dedicated to presenting contemporary music with the emphasis on the physical – a style she adopts here, mixing precision sharp physicality with slapstick, sleight of hand and economy, to winning effect – one also hugely successful in that other nifty book adaptation, The Thirty Nine Steps.
Bailey too is blessed with a wonderfully shape-changing cast able to adapt themselves to nationality and country at the swish of a curtain. As Phileas Fogg, the 19th century Englishman of rigorous habit who takes on a wager to circumnavigate the world in eighty days, Robert Portal is every inch the old-fashioned Imperial if honourable Englishman, impervious to disaster, stiff upper lip and a copy of Bradshaw ever to hand.
Beside him, as his selfless factotum, Passepartout, Simon Gregor’s mimetic, veritable jumping jack and Tony Gardner’s drole, lugubrious Inspector Fix, become a source of delightful comic mayhem and double-takes.
But this is a completely ensemble effort, conjuring trains, ships – even an elephant – and cities from Calcutta to the American mid-West in a blizzard before the deadline tolls. When it does – and Phileas is victorious – the audience’s whoosh of pleasure is a token of the production’s triumph. We were, very much, all in this together.
Phileas Fogg: Robert Portal
Passepartout: Simon Gregor
Inspector Fix: Tony Gardner
Mrs Aouda: Shanaya Rafaat
Colonel Proctor & others: Tim Steed
Nr Naidu & others: Eben Figueiredo
Miss Singh & others: Lena Kaur
Judge Obadian & others: Liz Sutherland
Director: Lucy Bailey
Designer: Anna Fleischle
Composer: Django Bates
Movement: Lizzi Gee
Lighting Designer: Chris Davey
Sound Designer: Mic Pool
Fight Directors: Rachel Bown-Williams & Ruth Cooper-Brown
Magic Consultant: Darren Lang