Jules Verne’s classic story has obvious cinematic possibilities, and equally obvious drawbacks as the basis for a stage adaptation. How do you portray a worldwide journey on a theatre stage? Yet that conundrum is also the basis for this dramatic incarnation of the tale. You don’t. You allow the audience’s imagination to do the work.A cold November Tuesday night in Derby is not the obvious starting point for theatrical magic, but magic did indeed descend tonight for a very special show.
Chicago born Laura Eason is a screenwriter and playwright, this production as much the product of her imagination, as the original was of Verne’s. Her adaptation, first performed in 2013, is both homage, and playful hybrid of the original. Nominated for both the UK Theatre Awards ‘Best New Production’ and the Manchester Theatre Awards ‘Best Show for Children and Families’, this is the production’s first national tour. An adaptation by an American woman of a French novel about an English gentleman has “danger” stamped all over it- instead we see triumph. Anyone tired of baggage check-in at East Midlands airport, or delays at Heathrow can rest easy. In Director Theresa Heskins’ capable hands,co-produced with the New Vic in Stoke, you just have to sit back and enjoy the ride. At the front you will be part of it!
Phileas Fogg ( Andrew Pollard) , places a £20,000 wager with his fellow Whist players in London’s Reform Club that he can circumnavigate the world in only 80 days, and so the fun begins. Lis Evans’s minimal but clever set design provides a hugely effective canvas for the actors and audience to work with. The eight actors play one hundred and twenty five characters, and props assume chameleon like qualities with the suitcases working particularly hard. “There is no balloon in the book!” declares Fogg, as his valet, Passepartout ( Michael Hugo), searches for a connection to get them home on time, and a miniature balloon appears.
Hugo’s performance is the comic beating heart of the production, endearing, accident prone, and very funny. Pollard skilfully unwraps his Fogg from a taciturn, cold fish, to a warm hearted hero. His hapless nemesis, Inspector Fix, is joyfully played by Dennis Herdman, as he frantically tries to satisfy his suspicions that Fogg is a bank robber. Borrowing freely from the John Cleese school of physical acting, Fix’s constant frustration is a delight. Kirsten Foster is entirely convincing as the woman, Mrs Aouda, to win Fogg’s heart, and help him discover his humanity. The first half at 75 minutes is longer than the second at fifty minutes, but the first half does not drag and the second half is enlivened by a pre-performance comedy routine from Passepartout.
The story itself has a surprisingly light touch . The spirit of adventure and possibility which epitomised the Victorian era is captured, but the characters do not take themselves too seriously. We are presented with an affectionate sketch of what it was to be English at the time of Empire, with excesses not airbrushed out. At drama school, the endless rounds of improvisation can dull the spirit, but here every ounce of improvisational ingenuity was required. Physical drama and humour abounds, there was laughter galore, serial rounds of mid show applause, stunning fight sequences, and a spontaneous standing ovation at the end. The music and special effects impressed throughout.
“The impossibility of it, that is what inspired us” declares Heskins in the programme notes. The company have not let her down, the beaming glows from the audience perfectly mirrored onstage. Runs from Tuesday 7 until Sunday 12 November and continues on tour.