Writer: Jules Verne
Adaptor/Director: Juliet Forster
Brightly painted in primary colours, the stage for Verne’s Circus sits in Archbishop Holgate’s playing field, complete with ladders and trap doors and topped with a cannon. A spacious audience area – and, as it turns out, acting area –, marked out with hay bales, contains various mysterious structures, including a sign post with pointers to places such as Japan. Brassy circus marches boom out from the loudspeakers, and, when a troupe of five actors comes running and leaping down the slope from the school, there seems every chance of a fun two hours to come.
So it proves. York Theatre Royal’s production of Around the World in 80 Days is not perfect; in particular, the narrative can be a bit blurred at times, with not all the improvisations immediately clear and the medley of accents sometimes lost in the blustery wind. But it is gloriously imaginative and carried off with enormous energy, skill and brio by all the cast.
Juliet Forster’s adaptation is essentially quite true to Jules Verne’s novel, though presented in something of a comic strip style. The satire on the stiff upper lip Englishman, which she found in the original, comes over entertainingly and Forster adds some well-placed barbs on the assumption of masculine superiority. In particular a poised counterpoint to the melodrama of Phileas Fogg’s adventure comes in the interpolated narrative of Nellie Bly’s journey. This, in contrast to the Verne/Fogg original, was undertaken by a woman, actually happened (in 1890) and took a mere 72 days!
The overall concept works splendidly. The circus troupe bounce, cavort and do tricks until The Ringmaster announces they are to perform Around the World in 80 Days, with himself, of course, in the role of Phileas Fogg. Squabbles break out, mostly on the question of why a man should have the lead role, but, with Nellie Bly added as the feminine alternative, Fogg takes his place in the Reform Club among haw-hawing upper-class gents and we’re off! The production, though, never loses touch with the fact that the multi-tasking cast consists of circus performers: now and again they slide out of character to question what’s going on and every opportunity for a bit of acrobatics or sword-swallowing is gleefully seized on.
As The Ringmaster/Phileas Fogg Emilio Iannucci is outstanding, moving from the volatile and temperamental circus performer to the almost robotically stiff upper class gent with ease, unencumbered by his tongue being firmly in his cheek. His relationship with the delightfully engaging, if somewhat hapless, Clown/Fogg’s valet Passepartout (Ali Azhar) has hints of Basil Fawlty and Manuel, though with less physical violence. Ulrika Krishnamurti (Trick Rider and Aouda, Fogg’s romantic interest), Eddie Mann (Knife Thrower and the brooding Detective Fix) and Dora Rubenstein (Acrobat and a forthright Nellie Bly) switch characters seamlessly and do their circus turns with aplomb.
Under Forster’s inventive direction it’s a true ensemble achievement which extends beyond the on-stage performers. Sara Perks’ designs make us smile in anticipation of more fun to come, Asha Jennings-Grant’s movement direction makes the most of the cast’s skills in physical theatre and Ed Gray’s music and sound plot adopts a “none shall sleep” approach – a quiet afternoon in York and suddenly a hurricane in the Indian Ocean explodes behind your right ear!
Around the World in 80 Days has set up on various school playing fields. Now, before the run ends, it can be seen at Joseph Rowntree School and in York Theatre Royal where, one fears, it may shed such delights as Phileas Fogg cycling at a stately pace through the audience on his way round the world while Passepartout runs behind in dogged attendance.
Runs until August 28th 2021