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Around the World in Eighty Days

Freely adapted from the novel by Jules Verne by Phil Willmott with original songs by Annemarie Lewis Thomas, based on tunes by Phil Willmott
Steam Industry Free Theatre
The Scoop at More London
(2011)

Around the World in Eighty Days production photo

This year Steam Industry Free Theatre celebrates its ninth glorious year providing free theatre for all at The Scoop, More London. In that time audiences have enjoyed tales of boisterous toads, cut-throat pirates and one-eyed monsters and by the end of this year the company will have played to over a quarter of a million people during its decade in existence.

Perhaps the most famous of all journey narratives, Around the World in Eighty Days tells the story of Phileas Fogg and a wager that it is impossible to circumnavigate the globe in less than twelve weeks. Fogg is a man of determination and, along with his French manservant Passepartout, he sets out to prove disbelievers wrong, but in winning the wager something unexpected happens - he also loses his heart.

Eugene Washington makes for a reserved and mysterious Fogg; a man who keeps his cool in extreme situations and his cards always close to his chest. He is the calm to his manservant's storm and Joseph Wicks' eccentric portrayal of Parisian Passepartout delights many of the younger audience members as he expressively clowns about as the show's comic.

Problems abound on the two's journey: there are buffalos and the wrong kind of leaves on the line, steam ferries and trains leave without them, but nevertheless the intrepid explorers manage to make their way across land, sea and sky, encountering a range of cultures and people as they go. Each episode from the novel's narrative is beautifully staged, making this an extremely inventive and imaginative piece of theatre. The production's simplicity makes it all the more engaging as the imagination is allowed to roam free in the open air. Suitcases and trunks become trains and a pair of ladders turns into beasts of all shapes and sizes.

The cast of ten perform with great gusto and execute their musical numbers with both energy and enthusiasm. When the audience is afforded the opportunity to join in trumpety-trumping in honour of Eugene the elephant, they just can't resist and a great sense of community is established.

Willmott's adaptation roots the piece firmly in the Victorian era, with Victoria and Disraeli themselves making appearances. Other prominent figures, such as the fictional Holmes and Watson have also been added and adults and children alike laugh out loud at seeing Holmes admit he is wearing a dress due to the multi-rolling nature of the piece. Although this adds to the show's lighter tone and increases enjoyment, one can't help but think this moment of comedy could have been pushed even further with a response of "Yes I am. Elegantly my dear Watson, elegantly" to Watson's "You're wearing a dress, Sir?", thus playing on and incorporating Holmes' beloved catchphrase for a knowing crowd.

Since the novel's first publication in 1873 attitudes towards gender and race have changed immensely. This has been somewhat addressed in this production through the characterisation of Princess Aouda, played by Suzanne Ahmet as a strong minded individual with plenty of girl power. When she reminds the audience that they don't need men to protect them, cheers of approval ring out, but there is still something a bit uneasy about the show's presentation of other cultures. The enforcement of cultural stereotyping through the use of exaggerated gestures and accents means that some of the characters slip all too easily into caricature. That, along with the inherent imperialism of Verne's narrative being difficult to shake, means that Others are still presented as barbaric, barmy or backward in a story nearly 140 years old.

The production is due to tour the country in 2012 and running at just over eighty minutes in length the wager is on to see whether the tour can be done in under eighty days. Let's just hope the company return on time ready to celebrate a decade of wonderful theatre down by the Thames. Just like Fogg's fans, those of Steam Industry Free Theatre will be ready and waiting.

"Around the World in Eighty Days" plays Thursdays to Sundays at 6.00pm until 4th September 2011.

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Reviewer: Simon Sladen