Everybody wants to see this show…and now they can.
Theresa Heskins’ caper-filled production of the Jules Verne classic is back in Newcastle Under Lyme for a third time, limbering up for an expansive 18-venue tour of the UK between now and the New Year.
If this show – with its Mercator’s Projection backsdrop – doesn’t put the New Vic on the map…I’ll eat every hat in the show. And there are dozens of them. Ten actors are constantly swapping headgear to play 109 characters who catch six trains, half a dozen boats, a sledge and an elephant to circumnavigate the world in 2 hours ten minutes.
Bearing in mind most of us know the story already – can Phileas Fogg win his whimsical wager by circumnavigating the globe in 80 flightless days? – the delight is in the presentation.
My grandma had one of those ‘skeleton’ mantle clocks in a glass case. The face and hands told you all you actually need to know….but the added excitement was seeing the countless cogs that made it all work. And so it is with this show. The actors tell us the story in a colourful and flamboyant manner, and also show us how it’s all done; creating swaying ships, sliding sledges, trembling trains and trumpeting elephants in a twinkling.
But for the chronological impossibility, I could swear that Jules Verne had Michael Hugo fully in mind when he created the character of Jean Passepartout. Hugo is a natural knockabout clown with razor sharp brain and rubber body.
He has a teasingly unrehearsed busking cameo in the audience, during which you could actually ‘see’ him squirreling away ideas for the following night. On stage, he’s called upon to wrestle a cast-full of adversaries without actually touching them … and then escape from a Hong Kong den of iniquity in a completely horizontally position. It’s the best prostrate exit-stage-left I’ve ever seen….now pursued by an audience member trying to give him his hat back.
He’s perfectly counterbalanced by another New Vic regular. As the starched and essentially English Phileas Fogg, Andrew Pollard slides through the show with all the emotionless precision of the Bradshaw’s Guide he so firmly holds – a book so chunky it makes Michael Portillo’s version look like a pamphlet.
We get to know the precise, soulless nature of Fogg through an immaculately choreographed and ingeniously repetitive opening sequence in which he wordlessly goes about his daily routine to an intricate and punctilious score by James Atherton; whose witty music then accompanies them round the globe.
Chasing them is the maniacal Inspector Fix of Scotland Yard. Dennis Herdman is a natural, put-upon, hopeless case who earns our sympathy and admiration through his sheer exhaustive effort and his willingness to be Passpartout’s punchbag (at a safe distance of course).
The travellers are followed around the globe by a totally unselfish multi-racial, circus-star, cast … creating up to 30 characters each with much panache and punnery. Matthew Ganley for example plays 27 varied cowboys, colonials and card players; whilst the highly impressive Kirsten Foster infuses her condemned Indian princess with so much defiant charm that Fogg’s heart was not the only one to start melting.
This is an evening of outright entertainment, sparkling invention and breathless, high-action storytelling. The use of audience members to keep the action going is hilarious. Having established a ship at sea by gently rocking the deck furniture, the cast then pressgang people from the front row to come on stage to keep it going whilst they get on with the plot.
There are heart-felt reflections on love and loneliness and what matters most in life; but it’s the comedy that counts. I’ll wager that your cheek muscles will be firmly in the ‘up’ position as you leave….and I expect to win my bet.
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Photos : Andrew Billington