If it’s sold out – and it soon will be, I suggest that you beg, steal or borrow a ticket for this, the funniest, most inventive and exciting comedy for years.
Laura Eason’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s great Victorian novel retains all the crafted suspense of the original, but throws in enough comic genius to fuel a thousand sitcoms. But no, I’ll take that back. This is the sort of inspired and educated slapstick that only theatre can deliver. All you need do is suspend disbelief and you’re guaranteed hours of delight.
The plot, admirably recounted in snatches of realistic dialogue, concerns Phileas Fogg, an upright English gentleman of decidedly set and sober habits. You could set a stopwatch by his daily routine, from morning shaving water at precisely 30 degrees C, to successful evening games of cards at his West End club.
Gambling takes a different turn with his enthusiasm for the wonders of 1873 transport. He boasts that the miracle of modern steam ships and trains make it possible to circumnavigate the world in 80 days. A fellow club member disagrees, and a wager of £20,000 (£2,000,000 in 2017 money) results, with Phileas on a channel steamer next morning.
He’s fortunate to have a French valet, Passepartout a former circus performer, to accompany him, and unfortunate to attract the cunning attentions of a Scotland Yard inspector, who mistakes him for a bank robber. The rest revolves around the unflappable Fogg’s ingenious solutions to the natural perils that beset travel, and around unavoidable adventures. No true Englishman can ignore the call of duty, when say an Indian widow is about to be added to her husband’s funeral pyre, or when his valet is abducted by Sioux warriors.
That’s the solid hub around which humour and invention flow. From pounding telegraphed fights with protagonists yards apart reacting to blows, to improvised creations such as an impressive working elephant from three people and a grey cloth, and lots of fun with tilting ships, vibrating railway carriages and acrobatic gymnasts – occasionally with audience participation.
In addition to the adaptation, credit for all this ingenuity is spread wide. Theresa Heskins exerts masterly directorial control in a work of split second timing. James Atherton’s attractive music choreographs the whole, and Lis Evans hugely adaptable set is made all the more apt by Alexandra Stafford’s choice lighting.
The whole cast deserve the five star rating, as they produce many characters. As Fogg, Andrew Pollard is ideal as the ramrod backed, uptight English gent with a hidden romantic side. Kirsten Foster as the rescued widow contributes elegance and ironic humour- mostly at Fogg’s expense. Dennis Herdman as the policeman fits nicely into the tradition of Inspector Knacker of the Yard, and Michael Hugo as Passepartout, steals the show as the long suffering but valiant valet.
I won’t give away the suspenseful ending, but let’s just say it brought huge cheers, romantic fulfilment and the answer to a geography question. As to the ending of this family friendly production that’s a long way away. Like a similar show: The 39 Steps, it will run and run and have revival after revival. ★★★★★ Derek Briggs at the Cheltenham Everyman on 19th July 2017