Around the World in Eighty Days

Jules Verne, adapted for the stage by Toby Hulse
Arcola Theatre

Iain Ridley as Passepartout, Simon Snashall as Fix of the Yard and Matt Odell as Phileas Fogg

Shakespeare’s Puck did it in forty minutes. Jules Verne gives his creation eighty days. Bradshaw’s rail and shipping timetables appear to show it could possible. Can intrepid traveller Phileas Fogg of 7 Savile Row really do it and win the £20,000 bet he makes at the Reform Club on 1 October 1872?

He faces almost as big a challenge as that adapter Toby Hulme and director Owen Calvert-Lyons take on in telling the story with minimum resources and a cast of just three to that most demanding of audiences: young children. Like Mr Fogg, they pull it off with style and elan.

It begins with a bank robbery. The burglar, surprised by a policeman, shoots him dead. This got a mixture of gasps and laughter from the school party I saw it with, an immediate response that got things off to a good start.

Honest-looking, well-turned out Mr Fogg, with his good teeth and open manner, is accompanied by his newly-acquired French valet Mr Passepartout who has been so long away from France he’s lost his accent. Hot in their pursuit is detective Fix of Scotland Yard, a man with a sixth sense that can immediately identify a criminal. He thinks Fogg’s the man who robbed the bank. He exactly fits a witness’s description and those good teeth are always a super criminal’s trademark.

Matt Odell is a gentlemanly Fogg, Iain Ridley gives Passepartout, who cannot tell a lie (“and that’s the truth”) the innocent honesty of Michael Crawford’s Spencer and Simon Snashall is not only strong on dogged determination as Fix but takes on much of the exposition and explanation as well as adding an Indian princess to his repertoire—though with more than twenty characters to play between them there’s quite a lot of doubling going on which in itself becomes a bit of a running gag.

Designer Amy Yardley provides a carpeted platform and a backing screen made up of six demountable panels in which sections can be changed by the cast to create London club, ship’s cabins, train compartments, consular offices, ticket counters, restaurants, grand hotels, border controls and even a funeral pyre. At least she doesn’t have to get them into the basket of a hot air balloon (that was an invention of the Mike Fisher movie), though others do repeatedly suggest it, dismissed by Fogg as being too uncontrollable. “Straight on!” is his motto, but perhaps on another occasion…

There are other repeated features that the young audience laps up and even start an unsolicited chanting, while a lesson in time zones becomes another comic contrivance.

The style embraces music hall and balletic storms and Keystone Cops chases but they can deliver them all as they push on the story. In no time the trio have got to Suez via a succession of puffing locomotives and other transport effects, portholes and lifebelts.

Occasionally there’s a slow pace to savour something funny but then it can take off in a madcap way, like when they all strip off to underpants to feed more fuel into a steamship's boiler—well, this is aimed at 7+ age group! But it is fun for adults too.

Performance times are geared to school groups and families on Saturday when there is also an evening performance. After having been sold out there are still tickets available for the last days of the run.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton