Around the World in Eighty Days
Reviewed – 10th August 2018
“The cast appear to be constantly fighting to maintain the dynamics against an unchanging, and quite dire, backdrop of what sounds like a cheap Casio keyboard”
Jules Verne’s classic nineteenth century novel, “Around The World In Eighty Days”, despite containing over a hundred characters, crossing eight countries using six trains, five boats and an elephant has inspired many stage adaptations over the years; undaunted, in the spirit of its main character, Phileas Fogg, by the challenges. The latest is Phil Willmott’s musical running at the Union Theatre. Although Willmott has been closely associated with the venue of late, especially with his ‘Essential Classics’ series earlier this year, this production is staged independently of him.
As with all well-worn stories, we all know the ending and so the onus is on the maxim that the journey is more fun than the destination; and it is clear from this punchy production that the cast are taking this to heart and patently enjoying themselves as they follow Fogg’s race against time to circumnavigate the world. There is a warm energy between Sam Peggs’ adventuring Fogg and Connor Hughes’ Passepartout as man and servant. Peggs neatly conveys the self-important imperialism of his character, dismissing other people, and other cultures, as mere dressing for his heroism. What he lacks, though, is the sense of satire inherent in Verne’s writing.
But we are not here for social commentary. This is billed as a fun filled musical comedy and, for the most part, the company and audience embrace this. There’s a star turn from Ceris Hine who adopts multiple roles with easy versatility; from a jaded, Scottish-born Moulin Rouge chanteuse to the upper-class wide-eyed Miss Fotherington. While in between practically stealing the show with her hilariously understated, blink-and-you-miss-it, portrayal of the birds and the wind that steer Fogg’s hot air balloon across the continent.
The music is full of crowd pleasers, particularly the anthemic overture which shows off the strong ensemble singing and sets the spirit of optimism that pervades the show. It is a shame, though, that the sound mix often makes it difficult to appreciate the music. The backing is frequently lost. While this is understandable within a score that swings from rousing choruses to intimate ballads, what is unforgivable is the musical arrangement. The cast appear to be constantly fighting to maintain the dynamics against an unchanging, and quite dire, backdrop of what sounds like a cheap Casio keyboard. I don’t know how this lack of respect, for Willmott’s songs and Annemarie Lewis Thomas’ score, wasn’t addressed during rehearsals.
That aside, Brendan Matthew’s direction keeps the energy throughout and the strong cast maintain the stamina and vitality to navigate the numerous and sometimes fantastically fast costume changes. There is enough magic and inventiveness to keep us going and, despite the various hurdles, we are ultimately glad we stayed the journey.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Mark Senior
Around the World in Eighty Days
Union Theatre until 1st September
Previously reviewed at this venue