I’ll confess it’s been a while since I was awed by the inventive and passionate storytelling of NIE. I’ll also admit that my previous encounters with their often heart rendering, always entertaining productions mean that I’m predisposed towards their current adventure. Taking inspiration from Jules Vernes’ novel, with some glorious character tangents, the physically and musically gifted sextet deliver this epic story with joyous gusto and more than a smattering of tea.
With only a carpet bag and one change of pants, as the closing number cheekily reminds us, Phileas Fogg and his loyal, French manservant Passepartout (wiz a ‘seelont ‘t’’) attempt to win a £55,000 wager that the world can be travelled in 80 days. What follows is a whistle stop transcontinental dash, fraught with danger and hilarity, unbuilt railway lines, easily offended gun-slingers and the machinations of Scotland Yard. It’s testament to the company’s characteristic energy and physical commitment that the audience is transported from the dense Indian jungle to the streets of Hong Kong with only a modest mix of handheld props and adaptable set. Special mention must go to the piano, not only providing a musical through-line, but also frequently doubling up as our hero’s transport – be it boat or elephant!
It’s no mean feat to engage the digital generation over 2 hours, but this the company do with very well timed and very well aimed audience interaction. Children in the audience are addressed as animals, officials and other supporting roles in most scenes. At one point Fogg and Major Cromarty climb into the Indian wilderness (auditorium) and Fogg is warned not to step on any ‘small parts’ of the jungle, while a child in glasses is identified as a clever lion. It’s reminiscent of pantomime but there’s nothing gaudy about this humour.
Top-hatted and towering above the more diminutive performers, Bonger is well cast as the commanding yet charmingly pedantic Fogg, marrying the clipped Victorian gentleman with contemporary timing to rib-tickling effect. A clear favourite amongst the audience is the adorable Passepartout, unwittingly leading Fogg into disaster and then saving him from it, and Murdoch’s comic brilliance is a beautiful lesson in clowning. Davis’ and Edwards’ panoply of supporting roles are anything but minor and their delight in distracting the narrative with silliness is delightful.
Even more crucially, the fun they have as a company is contagious and does what all family entertainment strives to do; wins both the child and adult laughter. I wouldn’t be surprised if the show inspired its audience to book some trips abroad – if only it were possible to travel to this fantastical version of the world.