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
Hot Lips & Cold War
London Theatre Workshop
Reviewed – 1st February 2018
“the three actors delivering palpable chemistry”
Welcome to the Kennedy administration, a time when race riots are escalating, the fear of nuclear war is unending, and the President keeps locking himself in the pool house with young ladies. In this piece developed through the London Theatre Workshop, Lizzie Freeborn takes us on a musical exploration of one of most glamorous and fraught periods in modern culture.
The show opens with a wide-eyed Irish girl called Maria (Sylvie Briggs), who finds herself in the confidence of Jackie Kennedy after being taken to America by the seedy Davy (Adam Small). Briggs is very engaging to watch and exudes an innocence which greatly contrasts with the scheming and deception the plot is so rife with.
Marcia Sommerford is poised but determined as Jackie Kennedy, and brings strength to a woman having to accept her husband’s infidelities and the pressures of a high-profile existence. “This isn’t a home, it’s an institution!” her husband reminds her harshly as she tries to create some domestic normality. Robert Oliver is suitably charming as JFK, and possesses an incredibly powerful voice (very fitting for the leader of the free world). Kenny O’Donnel (Lewis Rae) struggles to work for the interests of both parties while remaining impartial, and Rae succeeds in showing the conflict of professional obligations and personal opinions.
The costumes (Hal and Ruthie Theatrical Design) are very well done and include a notable number of changes for each character. Jackie Kennedy’s silk nightgown is a clever reminder that the First Lady was not lacking in sex appeal, albeit a more subtle kind than displayed by her more buxom love rival. In ‘Pentaxia’ we are shown the chemistry between JFK and his two partners as they dance around each other. This number demonstrates how JFK can be both an affectionate husband and a serial womaniser, with the three actors delivering palpable chemistry between them.
The subplot involving integration adds a nice balance to the glamour of the Kennedy-centred storylines, and leads to one the standout songs ‘You’ll Hear the South Roar’. Ashley Knight throws himself into the role of the prejudiced Southerner Jerome Kingsley and Florence Odumosu gives a powerful performance as Grace, a black staff member trying to protest injustice without jeopardising her position. Her son Marvin (Jamal Franklin) might even be more charming than the POTUS himself and his number ‘You Bet You Be Glad’ is particularly enjoyable.
Freya Tilly plays Marilyn with an effective differentiation between the public persona and the private, and gives an impressive rendition of the infamous ‘Happy Birthday’ incident without straying into parody territory. Marilyn’s death is staged particularly well (Tim McArthur) as the star walks away from the president who has grown bored of her and towards a brightly lit doorway at the back of the stage.
This was a thoroughly entertaining experience that offered alternative perspectives on iconic moments from this period. The score is strong throughout with more than a few standout moments from the cast, a definite recommendation.
Reviewed by Ella McCarron
Photography by Jamie Scott-Smith
Hot Lips & Cold War
London Theatre Workshop until 24th February