It is only six months since Laura Eason’s re-telling of Phileas Fogg’s circumnavigation last docked in Liverpool, and its rapid return is testament to both the bums-on-seats appeal of Jules Verne’s classic and the wit of this production, which began life at Newcastle-Under-Lyme’s New Vic Theatre back in 2013.
It is in some senses quite a conventional adaptation: “There is no balloon in the book!” the stuffy Fogg (Andrew Pollard) declares at one point, clutching his copy of Bradshaw’s travel guide while making a sly dig at the 1956 film that introduced one. Yet in other ways, Theresa Heskins has directed a high-energy display of modern inventiveness.
A tireless cast of eight play more than 125 characters, but also conjure an elephant from an overcoat, a sledge from suitcases and the movement of a liner with a piece of railing. Nyron Levy’s acrobatics in the circus scene that opens act two prompted murmurs of “Wow!” from younger audience members, while the show-stealing Michael Hugo’s clowning as Passepartout had ‘em rolling in the aisles, particularly as he attempted to crawl his way across the stage after being tricked into smoking opium by the double-crossing Inspector Fix (Dennis Herdman).
These kinds of moments are the primary strengths of what is essentially a romp; fast-paced and good-natured rather than offering much profundity in terms of life lessons or wider message. The social and economic barbs of Verne’s original are largely missing. Passing comments on empire feel crowbarred in, but that can perhaps be forgiven in a production aimed at children of seven and up, while Fogg’s closing epiphany about having “travelled the world but not yet seen it” also feels like a somewhat unconvincing shift after two hours of unrelentingly buttoned-up bossiness.
These are small details, and for the most part my young companion and I were carried along with Fogg and friends as they raced against time and did battle with misadventure. Even the sometimes-dodgy accents and cultural stereotypes that are an inevitable part of such a whirlwind global tour managed to stay the right side of cringe in the mouths of this multi-ethnic and immensely likeable cast. And if some of the finer details of character and place remained only lightly sketched, the overall picture was one of colour, life and plenty of fun.
Around the World in Eighty Days is at the Liverpool Playhouse until April 20, 2019 and on tour in the UK and USA.