Review by David Munro
SITTING watching Around the World in Eighty Days at Richmond Theatre,
I felt I was transported back to my childhood and my Pollock's Toy Theatre.
The whole show, with its cut out décor, charmingly conceived and executed by Cleo Pettitt, and cardboard characters seemed to belong to a Victorian nursery rather than a London theatre. A show for children at which adults may be allowed on sufferance to attend.
Therefore, to look at it with the critical eye one would bring to bear on the latest Broadway import would not be fair. It can only be judged on its own terms of reference, which I presume are, is it worthy to be put before a child? And one must say, yes!
The choreography by Jack Gunn is superb (and would grace the mythical Broadway show we are not reviewing with acclaim) and well executed by the hard working cast.
Phil Willmott, who also wrote the serviceable book and lyrics, directs with verve and the piece moved smoothly and with panache. The fact that Jules Verne has been 'freely adapted' isn't really noticeable as the characters move swiftly from Greenwich to Paris to India to Hong Kong to the USA to Liverpool and back to Greenwich, extricating themselves from tricky situations with the speed and aplomb of a Dick Barton (another character essayed by our intrepid author) all of which adds to the fun.
Dominic Gray plays the villain, Captain Fix in the full Victorian melodramatic style, with consummate skill, never going over the top and compelling the audience to boo him on his appearance, which they did with gusto.
Tim Mitchell as Passepartout, the valet, brought just the right amount of charm to his performance and succeeded in making the character a believable, lovable simpleton. His singing and dancing were worthy of that mythical Broadway musical in which perhaps we may applaud him in the future.
Phileas Fogg is an impossible part and one on which most dramatised versions of Around the World founder. It even defeated Orson Welles - so the fact that Stephen Beckett couldn't really come to terms with it is understandable.
He was excellent, as the pompous prig, but one could not really believe in the volte-face at the end, when humanity and love creeps up on him in the shape of an Indian princess. I must admit, I agreed with the little boy in the audience who shouted out, 'No!', when he made his proposal of marriage to her, to the great delight of the audience and the shattering of the cast.
The princess herself, played by Emma Thornett, was partly responsible for this negative approach to her nuptials. Her singing was far from melodious, emphasising the guttural vocalising, which is apparently fashionable today in the pop world. It was a part that called for a warm, feisty yet vulnerable portrayal and I found none of those characteristics in her performance.
I felt what we got was an aspiring pop singer who had somehow got on to Blind Date and hated it. Perhaps the Indians should have burned her in Act One.
Apart from the principals, it was an ensemble cast filling the stage with characters and playing musical instruments when required and very good they were at it, too. As they were in their solo spots.
Chevaun Marsh was a delightfully rumbustious cabaret singer, whose duets with Tim Mitchell reminded one of the great comedian/soubrette duets of the golden days of pre-war British musicals.
Jane Lucas, as the deus ex machina missionary was convincing and amusing, as was Cornelius Clarke, as the Mormon farmer whose paean to the advantages of marriage as a method of recruitment of farm labour brought the house down.
Damian Jones and Joe Fredericks, for some reason, were Holmes and Watson commenting on the action, as was Emma Manton, as a lady in waiting to Queen Victoria, and managed to quell the question as to why they were there in the first place, convincingly.
All in all a first-rate entertainment for children and those that were there thoroughly enjoyed it, as indeed they should. It makes a good bridge between pantomime and the theatre proper and, as such, I hope Mr Fogg will continue to circumnavigate the globe for a long time to come.
Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne, Adapted and Directed by Phil Willmott, Music by Annemarie Lewis Thomas, Lyrics by Phil Willmott, Choreography by Jack Gunn, Sets by Cleo Pettit, Costumes by Brian D Hanlon, Puppet Design by Mervyn Millar, Lighting Design by Hansbjorg Schmidt, WITH: Stephen Beckett (Phileas Fogg), Tim Mitchell (Phileas Fogg), Emma Thornett (Princess Aouda), Dominic Gray (Captain Fix), Cornelius Clarke (Mormon Farmer), Joe Fredericks, Damian Jones, Haruka Kuroda, Jane Lucas, Emma Manton, Chevaun Marsh. Presented at Richmond Theatre and on tour.
RELATED STORIES: Click here for Paul Nelson's review of the production, when it visited Battersea Arts Centre...