Writer: Jules Verne
Adapter: Toby Hulse
Director: Alexander Ferris
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
There’s a split in the Leeds Playhouse ensemble! As their season draws to a close the female members are in rehearsal for Be My Baby whilst their male counterparts perform a lightning speed version of Jules Verne’s 1873 globe-trotting novel and race against the clock. With just four actors the telling of the story is about as tough as Mr Phileas Fogg’s great feat itself.
From the outset, this is a show in which we are immediately on side. We are welcomed into the auditorium by a trio of actors before they burst into close harmony acapella singing. Toby Hulse’s ingenious adaptation presents the play as a troupe of just three actors about to perform almost the impossible. And with the show embarking on a community tour in Leeds following its run at The Playhouse, there is something of a ‘blitz spirit’ about the whole proceedings. It begins with a similar style of comedy to the incredibly successful Mischief Theatre’s The Play That Goes Wrong as actors begin to fumble and get lost in the enormity of their production. It then takes an unusual slant as the bearded writer himself, Jules Verne, appears from the audience wondering why they aren’t using his adaptation and asking whether he can take part in their enactment.
What follows is a gloriously comic adventure across continents as actors swap hats, costumes, props and accents as they ‘play’ the play with huge artistic license. All sorts of comic styles are adopted from physical, silent comedy, pantomime, Morecambe and Wise silliness and even an Indiana Jones reference thrown in. The cast has enormous fun with the ridiculousness of it all. Slips of the tongue are celebrated as they endeavour to work out which costume, accent or even continent they are meant to be in. One very funny scene involves the same actor having to double between Phileas Fogg’s manservant, Passepartout, and an officer at the Consulate of Suez. Hulse’s script celebrates the fact that actors can’t be in two places at the same time and allows us to enjoy the farcical nature of keeping a performance in the air and watch actors ‘spinning plates’.
Hulse’s adaptation is the beauty of this superb family show. Indeed, it is the constraints of performing such an epic story with just a cast of four that, paradoxically, becomes its ingenuity. We are willing them to succeed so much that when Fogg returns to The Reform Club with only seconds to spare the cheer is not only for its punctuality but in recognition that the cast somehow got through it. There is also massive comic value in enormous sections of the book being omitted because the actors hadn’t read it – a very clever convenience that affords Hulse to edit a huge novel into a two-hour stage play. And it goes from silly to absurd towards the end as Jules Verne (now dressed as an Indian Princess, beard and all, attempting to reclaim his novel from Phileas Fogg during a sequence on top of a train in the midwest of America, in order to keep the play faithful to the novel! Sounds complicated? It’s not. It is a lot of fun though.
Of course, a production is only as good as its actors and this is one in which they must dive in with both feet. Sensibly, director Alexander Ferris transposes all international accents to dialects of the British Isles to avoid any potential offence. Even Joe Alessi’s Passepartout has a broad Lancashire accent on account that he has moved about a bit. All four actors are allowed off the leash and obviously, have enormous fun in performance. Darren Kuppan whizzes around the stage as the nimble Fix of Scotland Yard. Darren Parr, as Jules Verne, is eventually allowed to join the troupe of players after the interval to help alleviate their storytelling headaches and Robert Pickavance keeps everything moving with as much punctuality amongst the chaos as he desperately keeps travelling East back to London.
Around the World in 80 Days is a superb family show for the Easter holidays. If not caught at the Leeds Playhouse it is playing several community dates around the city. It may lose a bit of plot in its madcap nature but there is so much fun to be had that all is forgiven. An exhausting trip around the world with a lot of laughs along the way.
Reviewed on 11th April.
Runs until 28th April, then touring | Image: Contributed.