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The Theatreguide.London Review

Around The World In 80 Days
St James Theatre  Winter 2015-2016

This low-key staging of Jules Verne's novel, written by Laura Eason and directed by Lucy Bailey, seems uncertain whether it wants to be theatrically inventive or broadly comic, and rather than combining the two vacillates back and forth between them.

So, while individual moments in each mode are effective, neither style is sustained long enough to build up an ongoing tone before being interrupted by the other. Come for comedy and you'll find the comic scenes too brief and far apart; come for theatrical magic and be frustrated as it repeatedly descends into slapstick. 

The cast is reduced to eight, four playing the central characters of Phileas Fogg, Passepartout, Aouda and Inspector Fix, and the others playing Everyone and Everything Else, from the club members Fogg makes his bet against to the occasional piece of furniture. 

A tone of Magic Theatre is established in the opening moments as a largely mimed sequence takes us through a routine-directed day in the life of Phileas Fogg, but the arrival of new valet Passepartout introduces a note of anarchic slapstick. 

The story's several sea journeys are effectively evoked on a bare stage, but then each is turned into the same basic joke as the actors stagger about a supposedly heaving deck in the same way every time. 

Some sleight-of-hand magic allows Fogg to play whist with actors on opposite sides of the stage, but such illusions are never attempted again. The action occasionally moves, with good comic effect, into the wings, the aisles and the audience itself, but the rescue of Aouda is clumsy and chaotic and the later rescue of Passepartout from American Indians relegated to offstage. 

Meanwhile a recurring pattern of flubbed lines, missed cues, misfiring gags, attacks of the giggles, recalcitrant props and malfunctioning set elements suggests woeful under-direction or under-rehearsal. 

Each of the principals takes a turn addressing someone else by the wrong name or discovering him- or herself not where they're supposed to be standing. (It's barely possible that some of the flubs are scripted, designed to bring the audience in on the joke, but not all of them.) 

Robert Portal captures exactly the right tone of phlegmatic imperturbability as Fogg, and warms up believably as he comes under Aouda's spell. As Passepartout Simon Gregor appears to be a skilled physical comic hunting desperately for gags to play and badly let down by an uninventive director. 

Tony Gardner as Fix is the worst offender in the line-forgetting, cue-jumping, being-in-the-wrong-place department, and Shanaya Rafaat's Aouda is a blank until a surprising, effective and delightful late scene in which she takes the romantic reins. 

Come in a generous holiday mood and catch them on a night when most of them remember most of their lines and most of the props work, and you'll have a gently entertaining time.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Around The World In 80 Days - St James  Theatre 2015

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