AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 19th April, 2013
Phileas Fogg cuts a dashing but aloof figure as he makes his way from bed to gentlemen’s club, in an empty routine of a life that runs like clockwork. Theresa Heskins’s marvellous production begins with an amusing sequence set to James Atherton’s evocative music, establishing a physical theatricality to the piece from the off. Fogg employs a new servant in the form of wiry and gregarious Frenchman, Jean Passepartout – this latter is seeking a quiet life but his engagement coincides with a rather silly and extravagant wager Fogg has with some of his whist-playing chums at the club. And so we see where pub talk can lead!
The floor is a map of the world – a thing of beauty in itself. Around the walls behind sections of the audience hang maps of the continents through which the action travels. Actors clamber over seats and spectators to slap arrows on the maps to chart Fogg’s progress. This device, along with a couple of performance spaces among the seating, brings the audience into the action. The New Vic has never felt more intimate and yet so…global.
We rattle through Europe on trains made from trunks and suitcases. The cast quickly change hats from berets to straw boaters to fezzes to provide local colour, bobbing about in their seats to convey the motion of the train. Travel by boat is similarly suggested. Actors and railings sway in unison – you almost find yourself joining in. The show is full of fun theatrical ideas. Theresa Heskins has gathered a creative and agile ensemble, wisely incorporating their ideas with her own to create a show of dazzling invention and wit. There is also another level to the silly cleverness. The show acknowledges its own artifices and celebrates them: for example in a scene on deck between Passepartout and Mr Fix, the actors sway chairs and a table to maintain the context of sea travel, but they also have a scene to play out – they negotiate their way around the furniture making sure the rhythm is never lost. But then, Fix is left alone to keep it going – we are in the scene and yet out of it. It’s “meta” (as the trendies say) but above all delightful.
At the centre of it all is Andrew Pollard as cold fish Fogg, who (thanks to a running joke and sleight of hand) travels the world throwing his money around. His height marks him out as a beacon of Englishness and decency. His urgency is not motivated by financial gain but by pride; he has a point to prove and risks losing everything to make that point. Stubborn is another word for it. Keeping his nose in his book of timetables or his hand of cards, he is travelling the world but is not in the world.
As Passepartout, Michael Hugo treats us to another display of his superior clowning. Every move he makes, every facial expression is spot on, calculated to maximise the humour of the situations. It’s all larger-than-life but never over-the-top. His experience in an opium den is remarkable slapstick from first puff of the pipe to passing out and then coming to and trying to drag his intoxicated body offstage. It’s a breathtaking performance and that’s before I even mention his French accent which manages to be broad and funny without exaggerating to Clouseau or Allo Allo proportions. I didn’t need the reminder but he showed me again why he is my favourite actor.
Dennis Herdman’s Inspector Fix is an excellent foil for Passepartout. A fine physical comedian, he and Hugo engage in a fist-fight at long distance, a hilarious device that diffuses the violence into cartoon capers. There’s also a brawl in a temple – the funniest martial arts combat you will ever see.
The supporting players work their socks off, hardly ever off-stage, and playing up to 30 parts each, in this fast-moving romp across continents. Okorie Chukwu impresses with his acrobatic skills as well as his characterisations. Suzanne Ahmet, Matt Connor and Pushpinder Chani change accents as quickly as they change their outfits; they are a metaphor for the clockwork precision with which Fogg lives his life. The action flows seamlessly from place to place; you’d think the cast was much larger than it actually is, helped along by James Atherton’s charming score, which is evocative of place and also the passage of time.
Fogg looks up from his book long enough to realise a woman needs rescuing and so, courtesy of an astounding but simple appearance of an elephant, the beautiful and elegant Mrs Aouda (Kirsten Foster) is saved and becomes his travelling companion for the rest of the journey. From this point, Fogg is more in-the-moment, problem-solving and using up his resources to achieve his ends. It’s not saying if you’re rich you can do anything you want. When Fogg is on the brink of ruin, Mrs Aouda proposes marriage. She wants the man not the money. Fogg learns that life is to be experienced and not read about and is rewarded with someone with whom to live it. This is a message to all those of us who keep our eyes on our phones, viewing experiences through camera apps rather than experiencing them first hand.
You haven’t got 80 days to see this exhilarating production. I suggest you make Fogg-like exertions to get there. Already I’m thinking this is the best show of the year.