Around the World in 80 Days
April 13-28, 2019
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
The play began with the trio of actors performing an a capella medley of music hall songs placing us squarely in Victorian England. The set was quite minimal for Leeds Playhouse, with a large clock facing the audience centre stage within a wooden partition behind which looms what appears to be the rafters of a ship’s hull. In the background various objects can be made out; an armchair, a globe, luggage cases. It looked rather like someone’s attic or a steampunk jumble sale.
After the initial musical medley we were thrown into the action as what appears to be a heist is committed by a be-cloaked thief. The struggling music, alarms and flashing red lights amidst the onstage gloom created a sense of excitement and intrigue which quickly fell away as we settled down into a scene in which we meet Phileas Fogg, and his assistant as they make preparations for their journey around the world. This scene however was soon broken by the intrusion of Jules Verne, the writer himself who admonishes the actors for their handling of his material and questions the nature of the performance. As soon becomes apparent this is no ordinary telling of the tale as these direct addresses and asides to the audience become an intrinsic part of the show as it goes on.
Breaking the 4th wall as it’s sometimes known is more often used as a kind of intellectual game to make a point about the nature of the work itself. Less rarely is it used – as it is here – as fuel for fun. One could see how it was used throughout the play to draw attention to the difficulties inherent in performing the play itself (3 actors attempting to represent a round the world trip with a multitude of characters) and also how the inclusion of the ‘Jules Verne’ character brought up questions about the nature of ownership and the difficulties inherent in adapting another’s work but mainly these digressions and asides created another layer of humour which flattered the audience’s ability to engage both in the plot whilst simultaneously recognising its artifice.
These narrative breaks worked very well and sometimes allowed for a rest from the sometimes hectic nature of the show. They worked even better however when they were seamlessly woven into the show. I particularly enjoyed the scene in which Jules Verne playing the princess read a copy of the titular novel whilst giving away plot spoilers to Fogg.
This aspect to the play was interwoven into a high speed adventure story which took us – not surprisingly – around the world. At times such as in the scene in Bombay the pace got a little too hectic and I felt a sense that the whole thing may come off the tracks like a runaway train but luckily there was a masterful driver at the helm and a very able crew of actors keeping things running smoothly. The sheer technical difficulties of performing so many characters at such a pace was impressive as was the physical dexterity required by the performers. All the actors though played their parts with real verve and energy.
Fogg was nicely underplayed by Robert Pickavance as a bemused fop with just the right touch of ambiguity to him leaving the audience guessing all along as to whether there was some ulterior motive to his trip than the mere winning of a gentleman’s bet. The show was really brought to life though by the brilliant buffoonery of both Joe Alessi as Passepartout and Darren Kuppan’s Inspector Fix. Both gave excellent comic turns as Fogg’s naively faithful retainer and his detective nemesis respectively. Kuppan’s turn was particularly notable for demonstrating his skills as a physical performer who has both the grace of a dancer and the expressiveness of a mime. His antics of running on the spot and hiding in disguise from Fogg were a joy to behold. Special credit too should go to Dan Parr’s Jules Verne who was played as a kind of endearingly eager and vulnerable man-child forever wanting to shoehorn his way into the show. The different minor characters too were brilliantly played with some faintly ridiculous regional accents and ludicrous costumes adding to the overall feel that at times we were watching something akin to a live action cartoon.
The quick change artistry of the performers playing this multitude of characters were ably abetted by the supreme skills of the props and costume team who managed to convey real individuality to all these minor characters. Whether this was done by a simple change of hat or a whole costume colourful and memorable characters such as the Indian temple musician in his silks and turban or the grizzled old bewhiskered sea captain were brought vividly to life.
The stagecraft overall was exemplary. Whether this was the soft yellow glow of an early evening in a wood panelled drawing room or the heat and light of an Indian bazaar subtle changes in lighting and the inclusion of found sounds and snatches of music managed to convey changes in time and place as we moved from continent to continent with Phileas and friends. The use of props too throughout showed real imagination as objects were twisted from one form to another and the relatively simple set was used in new ways from scene to scene. One minute it was a steamer ship on its way from Hong Kong, the next a train bound for Calcutta, the next an elephant charging through the Indian jungle. The way the destination and number of days left kept appearing throughout the play on handkerchiefs, jackets and umbrellas was also a charming touch. It brought a little ripple of pleasure from the audience to see which unexpected spot it would appear in next.
This was all part of the rich attention to detail and charm of the overall show. One never forgot that this was a world where – like children playing ‘let’s pretend’ – a tin bath could become a horse drawn carriage or a wooden slide could become an elephant. At times this was reminiscent of Harry Hill or even Monty Python and had a similarly endearing child-like sense of the playful and the absurd. The humour generally had a seriously clever silliness to it which combined word play with slapstick and several amusing running jokes. Though there were many moments of madcap fun the stand out was the chase scene on a train made from suitcases. Here we saw not only the team’s gifts with physical comedy but also their ability to interact with and transcend their environment creating with the audience a real belief that they were travelling at breakneck speed through the wild west. This scene seemed to represent the show at its best veering as it did somewhere between a giddy sense of fun and a knowing self-consciousness and inducing in the audience a sense of child like wonder throughout.