The beating, 28 degree sunshine cooled down to a breezy summer evening with not a cloud in the sky. There were many things I wanted to do with my evening – most involving tables and chairs outside and chilled alcoholic beverages – but sitting inside a hot theatre with a number of sweaty souls was not one of them.
And yet for the next two hours, I couldn’t stop smiling. Because Laura Eason’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s turn-of-the-century classic Around The World In 80 Days is perfect for the summer – as bright and breezy and full of excitement as the school holidays, but with variety and ingenuity to keep everyone happy – well, almost everyone.
During the interval, I overhead a couple of pseuds, one commenting to the other, ‘Oh yah, but it’s a little slapstick for my liking.’ Slapstick? No. This is a show of fabulously choreographed acrobatics that only seems clownish because it is carried off with apparently no effort whatsoever by a talented and tireless cast. The movement, directed by Beverley Edmunds, is full of playful touches – banknotes are ‘thrown’ across the stage and pulled out of sleeves like magicians performing tricks.
Let’s start with the chorus, because it’s no mean feat to play ‘Captain Speedy & 29 others’ (Okorie Chukwu) or ‘Colonel Proctor & 27 others’ (Matthew Rixon). But these guys do so, along with their fellow role-swappers Pushpinder Chani (who manages 19 characters) and Susan Hingley (21 characters in total). You do actually forget that they’re the same people playing each role too, as their shifting mannerisms and huge range leaps back and forth across the continents along the journey of the great Philleas Fogg as he attempts to complete his epic trip around the world and win his bet.
And so onto Fogg himself, the stiffest of British Empire upper lips who softens during his journey, not least because of his relationship with the lovely Aouda. Andrew Pollard does an excellent job of playing the composed, unruffled stalwart, right from the opening scene which shows us Mr Fogg’s routine in a display of marionette-like clockwork. He keeps that cool right until the final moments of the play, which helps convey the character’s touching desire to do good in the world.
But the star of the show has to be Michael Hugo, who plays Fogg’s haphazard valet and companion Jean Passepartout. His range and versatility is second to none, and is coupled with fabulous facial expressions and impeccable comic timing. He doesn’t just keep it to himself either – the audience participation here is fantastically involving.
The Royal Exchange has put on a number of real stunners recently that bring a real magic to the stage with theatre, movement, dance and comedy. Around The World in 80 Days is up there with the best of them.