Adam Bruce, United Kingdom Critic
The refurbishment of the Leeds Playhouse is well underway, and as the theatre accelerates towards its completion later this year, its Pop-Up Theatre space is now playing host to its most physical production yet: ‘Around the World in 80 Days’, adapted from Jules Verne’s novel by Toby Hulse. Directed by Alexander Ferris, I looked forward to seeing this production’s take on the classic novel.
I’m sure everyone has a basic idea of the novel’s plot: in Victorian London, wealthy adventurer Phileas Fogg (Robert Pickavance) wagers with his friends that he’ll be able to make it around the world in 80 days, accompanied by his manservant Passepartout (Joe Alessi). Along the way, however, the ruthless detective Fix of the Yard (Darren Kuppan) is after a bank robber and believes Fogg matches the description, resulting in a cross-continental pursuit; the classic story is here in all its glory. In this adaptation, however, we veer into rather meta territory when Jules Verne (Dan Parr) springs up from the audience and instructs the actors they aren’t performing the adaptation faithfully enough, and insists he be a part of the proceedings.
Speeding along in an hour and fifty minutes, this well-paced adaptation is full of madcap peaks and troughs that capture the madcap essence of Verne’s original novel. The four-strong cast, comprised of the men from the Playhouse Ensemble, work incredibly well together to craft a dynamic, sturdy ensemble that stands up to the rigours of fast-paced multi roling. Their energy is unrelenting and their characterisations are well-conceived, and under the Ferris’ smooth direction, the novel is translated very well onto the stage. There is a strong connection between performer and spectator, which is strengthened and built upon by a dialogue of physical theatre and audience interaction; it is a joy to see the playful ensemble revelling in the generosity of the audience and thriving amongst the physical storytelling.
I am, however, in two minds about Hulse’s meta adaptation of the novel and its effectiveness. I can’t fault Parr for his stellar characterisation of Verne, along with the masterful nature in which he integrates the narrative outsider into the piece, nor can I fault the whole ensemble for upholding the adaptation’s conventions with flair and dynamism. I just don’t know if such a meta approach to adapting this novel quite works. On one hand it creates an interesting onstage dynamic that reduces the temporal distance between our contemporary world and the narrative world; we perhaps see Verne as a sentient member of our everyday, a role in which he serves as a reminder of a storyteller’s responsibility when it comes to adapting his work (or indeed any piece of classic literature).
On the other hand, it’s a conventional aspect that breaks up the pace of the actual sections that tell the story of the Verne’s narrative, and the clever way in which Ferris draws upon theatre’s unique storytelling abilities in a live setting. I’m leaning towards this approach working, especially when delivered and upheld by such a fantastic cast, but it might not be to everyone’s taste and perhaps won’t be the straightforward romp some audience members may have expected for this Easter’s family treat.
What will be to everyone’s taste I’m sure, however, is the wonderful scenographic design that complements the essence of Verne’s original novel. Amanda Stoodley’s set design makes excellent use of the available space, crafting an area for our ensemble to thrive and playfully inhabit as they tell their story. Stoodley’s costume designs also perfectly capture the essence of the narrative and convey the time period of the madcap play-world with style and attention to detail. Tim Skelly’s lighting design also aids in the streamlining of the proceedings, snappily providing us with a range of atmospheric washes and narrative-specific focal points to intensify the action and further engage the audience.
This adaptation of ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ is certainly good fun and full of performative play and energy, and once again demonstrates the exceptional versatility of the storytellers that bring it to life. If you’re after something a bit different this Easter then this could be the perfect piece for you, and it raises some interesting questions about how the adaptation of classic texts continues to be approached. It demonstrates some bold conceptual choices that cement the unbeatable storytelling prowess of live theatre; as you watch Fogg and the gang clamber aboard a hot air balloon forged from a wicker basket and a single balloon, serenading us with barbershop harmonies and a trombone, you can’t help but leave the theatre inspired and with a smile on your face.
‘Around the World in 80 Days’ is at the Leeds Playhouse until 28th April before continuing on a short community tour. For more information, tickets and a complete cast and creative list, please visit: https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/around-the-world-in-80-days/