“Is this the one with Willy Dog?”
Not the most promising comment to overhear going into this new touring production of Jules Verne’s classic novel Around The World In 80 Days, but a useful indication of how it’s permeated public consciousness, even if it’s a half-remembered children’s animation featuring an anthropomorphised lion (Willy Fogg if you’re wondering).
On seeing the curtain come down on Laura Eason’s new adaptation it’s enough to make you wonder why it’s taken so long for a knowing, knockabout but generally respectful romp with a hint of West End to hit the stage. But it’s also a sign of the confidence of this new production that it introduces the iconic Phileas Fogg image in the form of a miniature hot-air balloon, descending from the rafters, then dismisses it immediately in exchange from a big laugh.
Then again, it’s also an acknowledgement of just how difficult it is to bring such a colourful, cosmopolitan story to a stage, with a handful of props and a tight ensemble cast. Suitcases form a staircase, a door – it provides the players with a myriad of opportunities to run, tumble and lark. And they do – it gives every impression of being as exhausting for the cast as a breakneck trip around the globe.
This is a cast of impressive physicality: one minute an elegant European dance, then circus performance, then a gunfight, then bullet-time fisticuffs. Much revolves around Fogg’s valet, the itinerant Frenchman Passepartout, brought to life wonderfully by Michael Hugo. Dennis Herdman channels The Mighty Boosh’s Hitcher in his rendition of notional antagonist Inspector Fix and Andrew Pollard as starched as one of his shirts as Fogg himself.
Hugo is frequently afforded noises off asides and out-and-out fourth-wall breaking, occasionally the cast corpse at ad libs. It never comes across as less than thoroughly joyous.
It takes a little while to get going in the long first half but when it hits its stride it’s thrilling, touching and laugh-out-loud funny. It’s also the sort of Christmas production the Playhouse has been looking for for several years.
Despite its breakneck pace and race-against-time narrative, Around The World In 80 Days manages to make time stand still for a couple of hours and frame our planet as a place for innocent adventure. No mean feat in these strange times.
Around The World In 80 Days
Until 28 October