Christmas is the time of year when adults feel compelled to take children to the theatre, so what do theatres do? Pantomime of course, a uniquely British tradition that makes less and less sense the more you think about it, and is frequently entirely unsuitable for children. Others put on popular adventures. Around The World In 80 Days at Bolton Octagon is the latter.

Around The World In 80 Days is one of the most adapted novels in the history of theatre. Written by Jules Verne in 1872 when copyright law was a bit loose, theatrical adaptations made him a rich man during his own lifetime. Why? Because it’s got lovely goodies Phileas Fogg and Passepartout, evil baddies Sir John Sullivan and Detective Fix, and a race against time for a huge bet. And, if you’ve never seen it before, a coup de théâtre ending. All you have to do is tell it right.

The version at the Octagon doesn’t quite achieve that. Authors Kate Ferguson and Susannah Pearse have chosen to write a musical, rather than a thriller, and the narrative tension rather gets lost in the 16 musical numbers. Not that they are bad numbers, some of them are very good indeed, and the six-part harmonies are intricate and pleasing. But a song every six minutes does tend to slow the action down, despite the best efforts of the director Kash Arshad who has nevertheless given us lots of fun.

Around the World in 80 Days. Pamela Raith Photography.

The elephant is a huge surprise, and a delight. The train carriage roof fight is super. The balloon is a coup in its own terms. The boat journeys are effortlessly staged. It’s a bit of a task to throw a girdle round the earth in a couple of hours, but I believed it all.

The cast are fab. Polly Lister leads as Phileas, Lady Fogg, and commands the stage and the songs like the patrician dowager she plays. Kai Spellman as Passepartout, Lady Fogg’s butler, loses out a bit in the adaptation, but comes into his own in Chicago in a big way. Robert Jackson is wonderfully bad as Sullivan the duplicitous newspaper owner and should get boos, and would if he challenged the audience directly. Charlotte Linigham is an absolute find. Noël Coward once said that style is knowing what kind of play you’re in. She knows. In spades. 

Likewise, Emma Fenney does a great job of quick changes and thankless cameos, and gets some good laughs along the way. Darren Kuppan is thoroughly believable as the would-be journalist bribed into sabotaging the journey with a byline, but once on the road he’s a bit too riddled with guilt for my taste. I just wanted him to buck up and get a move on, as Sir John would have said. There’s also Olivia Chandler, whom I didn’t see but who is understudying everybody and their harmonies. Olivia, you don’t get paid enough.

Around the World in 80 Days. Pamela Raith Photography.

Designer Katie Scott has given us some lovely frocks – I particularly liked the balloonist outfit – but she has chosen to put the all-important map on the floor. I say all important because we are going around the world against the clock, and many of our younger audience will have no idea of the whereabouts of Kolkata and Shanghai, vital to a sense of the progress of the narrative. The map on the floor doesn’t delineate progress and doesn’t help to build the tension, the tension we release as sadness when we learn they are a day late, except secretly we know they’re goodies and really can’t lose, and that turns to joy when we learn about the…oh, no spoilers here.

But the songs are lovely, the acting is excellent, and the woman sitting next to me who has seen “everything in the West End” gave it a stander and said it was “better than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory“. So there.

By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor

Main image by Pamela Raith

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Around The World In 80 Days is at Bolton Octagon until January 6, 2024. For more information, click here.