Jules Verne’s Around The World in 80 Days epitomised the eccentricity and the audacity of the Victorian English who considered themselves capable of anything and achieved it with a certain assured nonchalance.
Laura Eason’s splendid adaptation of the classic story is totally crackpot and wonderfully oddball, and now being played out with Heath Robinson invention at London’s St James Theatre.
You’d think that it would be ridiculously ambitious to mount a stage production that visually charts Phileas Fogg’s epic race against the clock around the globe.
But the concept doesn’t daunt director Lucy Bailey (never one to shirk insurmountable design issues) thanks to Anna Fleischle’s ingenious set.
The set is a clever interpretation of life in 1870s London. Upstairs – and for the upper classes – everything, and anything, is assumed possible while downstairs the underclass (an army of servants) work tirelessly to ensure that life runs smoothly.
We have all hands on deck (literally) as fingers pop out from trap doors to proffer clothes, tea, and the essentials of the story – including sound, lighting and special effects.
Fogg lives, with his valet, Passepartout, in Savile Row and is fastidious in his habits.
The bachelor runs his rather pointless life with military precision, rising at precisely the same time, expecting his tea at exactly the right temperature, leaving for his club at the same time every night.
One night, while playing whist at his club, he accepts a wager of £20,000, that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 Days.
Armed with two carpet bags, his man, a copy of Bradshaw’s, which contains all the timetables they will ever need, and the supreme confidence of an English gentleman, they set out on their journey.
It’s all gloriously daft and made more so by the comic antics of Passepartout and a London plod called Inspector Fix, who chases the pair most of the way around the world after being convinced Fogg is an escaped bank robber.
For the adults Eason doesn’t skimp on the story’s heart and if you want to, you can consider British imperialism, social injustice and the plight of the poor, the historical and cultural significance of Victorian expansionism and invention and a man’s journey to find himself.
Or you can sit back and enjoy a jolly good family-friendly adventure yarn, enthusiastically and energetically performed by an ensemble of eight, and led with innate charm and stiff-upper lip by the excellent Robert Portal.
Portal’s Fogg rarely shows any more emotion that the raising of an occasional eyebrow.
His impassiveness may have made the Empire great but his eventual undoing by Shanaya Rafaat’s Indian refugee, Mrs Aouda, brought a surge of emotion from Friday night’s audience who hankered after a happy ending.
The romp takes in the Great Pyramids, the Suez Canal, the jungles of India, the opium dens of China and the prairies of America, a geographic jaunt that is carried out in breathless style and unrivalled ingenuity.
Simon Gregor’s knockabout turn as a shamelessly over-the-top Frenchman is a treat with the physical comedy boosted by his occasional double act with the dead-pan Tony Gardener as the deliriously dim but dogged Inspector Fix.
The biggest laughs of the night came from a routine where the Fix is given a seeing-to by Passepartout – which only goes to show what a sadistic lot an audience can be.
Four actors play a multitude of parts but Tim Steed’s exhausting and quick-change series of cameos are the best and funniest.
A globe-trotting treat that packs a world of fun into its 120-minutes.
Around The World In 80 Days plays at the St James Theatre until January 16.
Around The World In 80 Days
Around The World In 80 Days is a globe-trotting treat that packs a world of fun into its 120-minutes at St James Theatre.