Writer: Jules Verne
Adaption: Phil Willmott
Director: Tim Clayton
Reviewer: Harry Mottram
Like any long journey, Tim Clayton’s Around the World in 80 Days trundles along with periods of flatness interspersed with moments of high interest. Moments you remember like the circus, the elephant journey and the Parisian nightclub, rather than some of the muddled scene changes in what is inevitably a complex drama involving several continents, numerous sub-plots and a host of characters.
Jules Verne’s 19th Century novel follows the intrepid Phileas Fogg on his ambitious attempt to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days with his sidekick Passepartout for a bet. Well, it was 1872 before aeroplanes, high-speed rail or even cars had been invented. Phil Willmott’s musical adaptation along with Annemarie Thomas’s lyrics gives the adventure story a 21st Century twist with an anti-imperial theme, debunks the racism of the time, turns the sexism of Victorian England on its head and sends up big game hunters all at the same time.
Verne’s novel was written in an era when the sun never set on the British Empire. A time when the Suez Canal had just opened, railways snaked across America and Asia and international travel was possible for the rich.
Cleo Pettitt’s ambitious fob watch inspired set and props lends the right context, tone and texture to the drama and aided by Krissie Oldroyd’s steam punk costumes gives a visually evocative feel to the whole production. The lighting and staging are equally strong but the sound and musical backing is all too weak for a project of this grandeur and demands a stronger soundscape.
Clayton’s use of the community cast works well. The choreography of their movement, the clarity of their vocals and singing, and in particular the way he blended them into the production with seven professional actors was excellent. Yes, there are moments when some community actors are going through the motions but the audience accepts this, while their inclusion makes the production greater than the sum of its parts. The youngest actors naturally are clinchers in the ‘ah’ factor that all family theatre needs and providing some of the best and most comic moments.
The story is written by a Frenchman about a Frenchman whose personable character and humanity upstages the stiff upper lipped snobby Englishman Phileas Fogg. Tom Babbage never knowingly departs from his Gallic voice and manages to galvanise the whole production with energy, self-belief and a sense of fun. Ross Barnes as Fogg is perfect as the frightful prig while Samantha Harper glitters nicely as Princess Auoda in her finery as she reprimands Phileas Fogg for his political incorrectness and insensitivity.
With a voice straight out of the officer’s mess in Zulu Dawn Derek Frood is the essential Victorian upper crust bloke with his Flashman-esque manner as Captain Fix – the potential nemesis for Fogg, while another trooper is Karen Davies as Miss Fotherington. Both threaten to overshadow the main characters such is their stage presence, but both generously give the younger actors space. Nikkola Burnhope crackles and sizzles in her various guises (best as the Irish love interest to Passepartout) and Samuel Clifford adds massively to the production with songs, action and moustaches.
This production is something of a halfway house between full-on professional theatre and quality am-dram but does better in its production values than Peter Pan down the road at the Northcott in blending the two. The Brewhouse is Somerset’s central arts hub but the county lost out when it fell into administration in 2013 and went dark for a year. Since its re-opening, it has reinvented itself and with this production shows ambition and creativity enough to justify its role as a central part in the South West’s theatrical landscape.
Runs until 31 December 2016 | Image: Contributed