“A well-used minimum suffices for anything”
The festive offering from the St James Theatre this year is a new version of classic adventure story Around the World in 80 Days. Laura Eason’s adaptation from Jules Verne’s novel has a playful sense of invention about it – a company of 8 actors take on more than 50 characters – but with an abundance of festive frivolity available in pantomimes across the land, Lucy Bailey’s production falls a little flat, lacking the necessary sparkle for real theatrical magic.
Providing an alternative to standard Christmas programme makes sense though, and the travels of English adventurer Phileas Fogg are a good fit for this family-based entertainment. The epitome of the Victorian gentleman, Fogg takes on a wager from his club buddies that he can’t circumnavigate the globe in less than 80 days and bets his whole fortune on it. With just his trusty valet Passepartout by his side to get them through the many scrapes in which they find themselves, the race is on.
Robert Portal is ideally cast as Fogg, all clipped accent and stiff upper lip, and he is contrasted well by Simon Gregor’s zany French manservant, though both portrayals end up a little too one-note, Gregor’s clowning particularly rarely cuts loose enough to really get the laughs. Indeed, Bailey imposes a certain restraint on the whole production that means it rarely ignites. Anna Fleischle’s timber-framed set with its trapdoors and travelators holds much theatrical potential but too often, it goes unexplored.
The speed of the journey from country to country and continent to continent is certainly rapid but there’s little invention in even their passing appearance, sometimes just leaving the script to describe the beauty of a particular view or object. Django Bates’ inventive score is a big help but so much more could be done as in The 39 Steps which has half as many cast members but at least twice as much ingenuity in following a similar multi-roling format and the imaginative evocation of numerous locations and methods of travel.
That said, there are flashes of inspiration. The elephant, petticoats that turn into curtains, a magical game of cards that stretches across the whole stage thanks to Lena Kaur’s dexterity, Tim Steed’s every single cameo as a wide range of fairly hapless chaps, Tony Gardner’s unflagging pursuit of the pair as Inspector Fix. It’s hard not to feel a little disappointed that the whole play isn’t just a little bit more creative and well, fun.