Around the World in 80 Daysis showing at the Leeds Playhouse Pop Up Theatre, until the 28th April. As well as offering a thoroughly entertaining rendition of an old classic, whilst maintaining an impressive resemblance to the source material, the performance distinguishes itself from run of the mill retellings through the introduction of the books author as a character himself. Unfortunately, what could have been a great, universally appealing piece of theatre devolved into a kind of slapstick pantomime.
The introduction of Jules Verne was a great decision by Toby Hulse and Alexander Ferris, who are the adaptor and director respectively. Verne’s character only makes occasional interventions, at least until he joins the cast shortly before the intermission to play Phileas Fogg’s love interest, Aouda. His persona is not unlike that of an over excited child, who routinely pleas with the other actors to be involved. I found this quite grating; I felt Verne’s character was at his best when narrating, or when he was correcting the details of the play, which I felt was one of the performance’s best features. The use of the author to highlight discrepancies between the book and the play allowed the cast to poke fun at the two film adaptations, which were riddled with mistakes, providing a novel kind of comedic value. This is important because, aside from Verne, a very impressive element of the performance was how faithfully it followed the events and sometimes even dialogue of the original novel. It was a real relief to see a brilliant piece of literature being adapted for a different medium without great liberties being taken with the details of the plot or characters.
I was happy, too, to see the performance was primarily a comedic one. The novel was meant to amuse, and the use of slapstick, breaking the fourth wall and vague audience involvement are viable ways of achieving that in the context of a stage performance. The problem, then, was that the show was not ultimately very good at doing these things.
The less said about the accents used as they travelled around the world the better (they seemed to be getting more and more Scottish – was that a joke in itself? Did it sound that way because they were trying for something else? Whatever it was it never became clear to me), and the clothes change jokes drawing attention to the tiny cast seemed to go on just a little too long. What was most frustrating, though, was that the show would invite the audience to make noises or comments and then seem unaware of how best to respond to them. The actors would look somewhat blankly into the audience, unsure of how best to make use of the opportunity afforded by our gasps of shock or pity. This is a shame, too, because in every other respect the actors were really good – charming when they needed to be, and sufficiently sinister when that was what the show called for.
All in all, it certainly wasn’t a bad performance. It was innovative, amusing and told a story that was both engaging and light hearted. I would recommend it, although perhaps not one of the £31 seats.
Image Courtesy of Leeds Playhouse