Review: Around the World in 80 Days at Liverpool Playhouse

By Nigel Smith

125 CHARACTERS, 12 countries, six trains, five boats, four fights, a circus and an elephant – this is the seemingly insurmountable list of obstacles set out by director Theresa Heskins as she describes the challenge of putting Phileas Fogg’s epic journey on stage.

If Fogg himself confounded his challengers at the Reform Club by taking on an impossible task, it seems that Heskins managed to find a similar resolve. Armed with a cast of ten multi-skilled performers who seem unflappably up for it, all she needed to add were several bucket loads of imagination.

It is this imagination that gives this substantial adaptation its charm and wit. The cast ask us to use our imaginations too, to see the reality through the deceptively simple use of a small number of stage props. There are no fancy projections and no nifty machinery, just a huge stack of suitcases and steamer trunks, a collection of umbrellas and some assorted bits of deck furniture. It’s what the cast make of these objects that performs the magic.

Opening with a scene that has a Groundhog Day feel to it we meet Phileas Fogg (Andrew Pollard) going through his daily routine. When he sacks his previous valet for the smallest of failings, in comes Michael Hugo’s Passepartout, grateful for the opportunity to lead a boringly ordered life for a change. Little does he know what awaits him.

The 80 days of the story are played out in 2 hours 15 minutes, so we’re in for a pretty fast ride and, although there are one or two moments in the first act where the pace sags a little, the whole thing generally rattles along at an alarming rate, and it shifts into an even higher gear after the interval. It takes very little time to acclimatise to the conventions of near-pantomime in which the movement of trains and boats is portrayed by an incessant swaying of the actors – and indeed some of the furniture. It’s so easy to be drawn in to the pretence that you could almost begin to feel seasick if you weren’t too busy chuckling away at the absurdity of the situations our travellers find themselves in.

Pollard’s Fogg is wonderfully drawn and Dennis Herdman gives a thoroughly ridiculous comic turn as the blustering, bumbling Inspector Fix. The whole cast work together like a well oiled machine, seamlessly transporting us from one continent to another with endless costume changes. There is some tremendous physical theatre too, with recurring visual devices, notably in the numerous, hysterical fight scenes. Worthy of special note, then, is Stephan Ruiz, who is the fight captain for the show among numerous other roles, and whose near-impossible agility finds him leaping about the stage as though gravity is of no concern to him whatsoever.

It’s Michael Hugo, though, who everyone was buzzing about as they left the theatre. He manages to carry the audience along with his zany Passepartout, and takes over the front of the stalls as well as the stage. He builds up such a rapport that he has no difficulty at all in getting some of the paying punters to put in appearances onstage, to hilarious effect.

And the obligingly cooperative elephant? I’ll leave that to your imagination…

Around the World in 80 Days is at the Playhouse for 2 days only and continues touring until January.