Chris Eldon Lee reviews “Around The World in 80 Days” which is at the New Vic in Newcastle-Under-Lyme until Saturday 5th July before transferring to Manchester’s Royal Exchange
They say it’s better to travel than arrive and in Theresa Heskins’ new caper-filled production of the Jules Verne classic this adage is absolutely true. Bearing in mind most of us know the story already – can Phileas Fogg win his whimsical wager by circumnavigating the globe in 80 flightless days? – the delight is in the presentation. And last night a highly creative cast wound up the well springs of our collective imagination and we all had a marvellous time.
My grandma had one of those ‘skeleton’ mantle clocks in a glass case. The face and hands told you all you actually need to know….but the added excitement was seeing the countless cogs that made it all work. And so it is with this show. The actors tell us the story in a colourful and flamboyant manner, and also show us how it’s all done; creating swaying ships, sliding sledges, trembling trains and trumpeting elephants in a twinkling.
But for the chronological impossibility, I could swear that Jules Verne had Michael Hugo fully in mind when he created the character of Jean Passepartout. Hugo is a natural knockabout clown with razor sharp brain and rubber body.
He has a teasingly unrehearsed busking cameo in the audience, during which you could actually ‘see’ him squirreling away ideas for the following night. On stage, he’s called upon to wrestle a cast-full of adversaries without actually touching them and then escape from a Hong Kong den of iniquity in a completely horizontally position. It’s the best prostrate exit-stage-left I’ve ever seen.
He’s perfectly counterbalanced by another New Vic regular. As the starched and essentially English Phileas Fogg, Andrew Pollard slides through the show with all the emotionless precision of the Bradshaw’s Guide he so firmly holds – a book so chunky it makes Michael Portillo’s version look like a leaflet. Interestingly, neither actor drives. So their public transport escapades may not have needed much rehearsal.
We get to know the precise, soulless nature of Fogg through an immaculately choreographed and ingeniously repetitive opening sequence in which he wordlessly goes about his daily routine to an intricate and punctilious score by James Atherton, whose music wittily then chases them round the globe. So from the very first moments we know we’re in for a special evening.
The two travellers are finely supported by a multi-racial, circus-act cast playing up to 30 characters each.
Amongst the new recruits for this welcome re-run is Rebecca Grant who plays the poignant princess with such poise, dignity and charm I was actually willing Fogg to pop the question before she does. She’s all wide eyed and wondrous at her suddenly changing circumstances, as her earnest heart works on Fogg’s stiff upper lip…melting his logic, drip by drip.
The whole production seems to have matured rather nicely whilst it’s been away; the actors engaging the audience with much more slap stick and even getting them up on the stage to help out with the tricky bits. Michael Hugo has inevitably added to his off-the-cuff repertoire. The night I was there someone sneezed at a crucial moment and he brought the house down with his ad-libbed “Bless you”.
This is an evening of outright entertainment and sparkling invention – rather than intellectual enlightenment. There are a few polite questions about Imperialism and what matters most in life; but it’s the comedy that counts and I’ll wager your cheek muscles will be firmly in the up position as you leave.