I read a fair bit of Jules Verne when I was younger – I’ve been down to the centre of the earth with him and rocketed to the moon – but I’d be lying if I tried to suggest that the below wasn’t my main point of reference when it comes to his 1873 novel, Around the World in 80 Days.
So, yes, my knowledge of the story basically rests on a cartoon lion in a top hat and a cat-valet and whatever the hell Tico was supposed to be and fiercely ear-worming (and rather jarringly sexist) theme song. This stuff was kid-crack in the 1980s, utterly addictive. I must have watched a lot of it in my day because, as I watched Lucy Bailey’s family-friendly production, I found myself becoming increasingly impressed by how much of the plot the cartoon had incorporated – and then being slightly ashamed of the fact that I knew this.
There’s something of the cartoon to Bailey’s production too. She has spoken in interview about the need for there to be a little mischief in the rehearsal room and there’s an impishness and playfulness in evidence here along with a mostly endearing scrappiness – when Tony Gardner’s Inspector Fix flubs a line, he’s able to rescue the situation without the production breaking down, if anything it only makes the audience feel more generous towards the show.
There are some really inventive touches in the direction. The stage briefly becomes an elephant – with sheet-like ears unfolding from the sides of Anna Fleischle’s set and a corrugated trunk emerging from above – and a moving walkway in the middle of the set creates a sense of constant motion. But it does feel at times as if these ideas could have been further developed – that scrappy charm can only carry things so far.
Robert Portal is suitably leonine and upflappable as Phileas Fogg, a man who uses his Englishness as a kind of shield; there’s nowhere he can’t go, no door he can’t open, no calamity he can’t extract himself from. Verne was fascinated by the way in which the world was shrinking, with canals and new modes of transport making it possible to travel across continents in a manner previously impossible, and Fogg’s wager was meant to create the same sense of wonder as an ascent into the stars. But the world has only continued to shrink (time too has become more elastic, with 1980s kids TV themes, and all the memories attached to them, so easily fishable from the internet), so Bailey concentrates on the caper and the chase.
Simon Gregor is good fun as Fogg’s French valet Passepartout – he’s a stereotype but then so is everyone on stage. That’s part of the language of the show: broad and, yes, cartoonish. There are comedy French men, comedy Americans, comedy Indians and comedy Englishmen, poker-spined, stiff-lipped. The colonisers don’t come out of this looking too rosy either, busy as they are making a game of the world. But Fogg, the ultimate impenetrable Englishman, does end up finding a wife on his journey, a foreign wife at that, and Bailey’s production is not without a certain knowingness. And yet, I don’t know, I’m probably being far too serious-minded about this, but something about the experience of watching and laughing at this (and I did laugh) left me feeling slightly uneasy. Maybe my expectations are unreasonable for a festive family staging of a Victorian adventure story at a commercial venue, but given the current migrant crisis, I did wish for something a little more interrogative of what it is to cross borders, to move from land to land, to do so with ease and without fear.