Around the World in 80 Days
Kate Ferguson & Susannah Pearse, based on the novel by Jules Verne
Octagon Theatre, Bolton
I don't know if it's a post-lockdown effect, but this has been a popular year for stage adaptations of Jules Verne's ultimate peripatetic novel, this being the fourth we have reviewed this year, all by different writers.
There is a fashion currently for small-cast adaptations of old novels—we've seen several at the Octagon over the last few years—but unlike these, this play doesn't make the fact that everyone is playing multiple roles into the main joke. Kash Arshad's production uses an excellent cast fully committed to playing each character as an individual to tell the story, albeit one that diverts from Verne more than Fogg diverts from his originally planned route.
Ferguson and Pearse's version of the story is set a few hours short of fifty years and three days later than Verne's, so the challenge, issued outside the Reform Club by newspaper proprietor Sir John Sullivan, is to travel around the world and arrive back there by 4PM on Christmas Eve 1923. The bet has also been substantially increased too, from £20,000 to £50,000. This is accepted not by Mr Fogg but by his widow, Lady Phileas Fogg—to make the most of the new time setting, her husband was lost to influenza and her son killed in the First World War aged just 21.
The new setting gives the writers scope for some interesting ideas and references that sometimes work well, although both the plot and Fogg's route have a few unexplained gaps that mean it doesn't entirely gel. They seem to have been influenced in some diversions from the novel by the recent TV adaptation that starred David Tennant: the newspaper proprietor sends a young reporter to try to delay Fogg, in this case Amit Khatri; Passepartout (Kai Spellman) has a hidden past that makes him frightened to go to one of their destination cities, which in this version is Chicago; and part of their journey is by balloon, although this originated in the 1956 David Niven film.
The songs aren't particularly memorable or inspiring, but they largely function well enough within the plot. While the show is advertised as suitable for ages 5+, a lot of it is quite wordy and may go over the heads of most at the younger end (there is a rather long-winded running gag about the spelling of posh English surnames), but then it will suddenly jump into a moment of silliness that doesn't entirely fit, such as asking the audience to "Dance in Pyjamas" with them.
However, there are some lovely visual moments, especially those where direction, movement (Jennifer Kay) and design (Katie Scott) come together, such as the panels in the floor that turn over to become signposts to the countries within a swirly line to represent the route, echoed in the hanging rope lights, and the magical way that a long strip of sari-like material transforms into an elephant, helped by sound effects in Mark Melville's sound design. The mics, used for dialogue as well as for songs, sound a little harsh, making them feel a touch too loud for comfort and affecting the clarity of the lyrics.
Polly Lister inhabits the strong character of Fogg perfectly and is a powerful, constant presence on stage. Darren Kuppan is very appealing as the innocent young journalist who grows to like the person he is supposed to sabotage. Emma Fenney, Robert Jackson and Charlotte Linighan brilliantly create a whole cast of characters between them, from English gentlemen to Chicago gangsters and a silent movie star.
There are some very interesting ideas in the conception of this adaptation that don't entirely come off in the writing, but the production has some great performances and a few notable moments that make it fun to watch overall.
Reviewer: David Chadderton