I like Around the World in 80 Days. It may not be grand or shatter your sense of the limits of theatre, but it is an awful lot of fun. It provides a sometimes welcome evening’s distraction. Often, that’s all you need.
As you might have already guessed, this production at the Exeter Northcott is an adaption of Jules Verne’s 1873 novel. It has all of the same narrative beats, the same strands and the plot’s presented without any real subversion or twist. This is exactly what it says it is; Around the World in 80 Days: on stage. Like in the book, we meet Phileas Fogg (Andrew Pollard) a gentleman who bets twenty thousand pounds on his ability to travel around the world in 80 Days. It’s a quintessential conflict; he’s a man who can’t lose taking on a bet he can’t win. Along the way, he and his accident-prone valet, Passepartout (Michael Hugo), are pursued by Inspector Fix (Dennis Herdman), a man convinced Fogg is a fleeing bank robber, and Mrs Aouda (Kirsten Foster) a bereaved Indian Princess, as they race around the world as quickly as they can.
For a shoestring play on a small stage, that globetrotting scope is a challenge. How do you present Paris one minute and Bombay the next? How to you create a boat where, half an hour ago, you needed an elephant? How do you create scope, space, open air, when you don’t actually have any? And, perhaps most importantly, how do you do all that without bankrupting yourself?
It is in answering these questions that Around the World in 80 Days really shines. For all its faults, this is a bundle of practical and creative energy. Excellent lightning, costume and sound design help make sure no two places feel the same. The costumes were at times a little cliché – all the Americans were cowboys for example – but they provide an effective shorthand and help constitute a sense of constant forward motion of, well, travel. There’s a conviction here, one which means that, even if there are only three people and a suitcase onstage, we feel like there’s something big, broad, beautiful and exciting just beyond it. That sense of scope is more enthusiasm than skill; it’s sheer force of creative will, but it works. The actors believe in it, so you do too.
More impressive are the ways in which Around The World in 80 Days simulates actual modes of travel, creating the steams trains, locomotives and boats that Phileas and Co use to get around. Constructions that would cost any other production hundreds to perform are here cleverly reconstructed on a smaller budget. A small ensemble of trunks, suitcases and hand luggage arranged around the stage serve whatever purpose the narrative demands. One minute they’re the seats on a train, but give them a colour-appropriate cloth and hold up some cushions in the right way, you’ve got an Indian elephant. Throw up a sail and you’ve got a sledge. This team did an awful lot with exceptionally little and it’s a delight to behold. There might be a lot wrong with Around the World in 80 Days – Laura Eason’s script has a way of kicking you over the head with the most important plot points and most pressing themes, Michael Hugo’s Passepartout has an irritating habit of descending into comic squeals whenever he gets the chance – but they’re absolved by the ingenuity of these set pieces and the conviction with which they’re performed.
Limits like these are what define Around the World in 80 Days. Aware of itself as a play driven by creative enthusiasm and not budgetary aplomb, they drive a lot of the comedy. One scene, which relies on members of the cast swaying a set of chairs and tables to recreate the swaying of a ship, culminates in the actors bringing members of the audience onstage to take the slack as they run off to get ‘pudding’. The play never stops prodding at its own limits, never stops mocking the difficulties of its medium. The result is consistently entertaining theatre.
There’s something wonderfully juvenile about Around the World in 80 Days. It is make-believe writ-large and thrown up on stage. It has got the same sense of knowing cliché, mixed somehow up with the belief that anything might happen. This is a Saturday Morning Cartoon in the best sense of the phrase; cheesy, a little rough around the edges, but earnest, fun and bristling with life.
– Connor Gormley