One of my favourite things about being a theatre reviewer is the opportunity it gives me to go and see something completely new, which I know nothing about beforehand. This production was certainly one of those as I made my way to Cardiff’s New Theatre to see Around the World in 80 Days. I will be honest, I have also never seen the film adaptations of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, published in 1873. So I was going in knowing nearly nothing except for the bare outline of the story from reading the book years and years ago.
This UK Tour opened on the 23rd of June, 2017, and features a cast of only eight actors who carry the whole show from principal roles to the constantly changing ensemble. This shows this production’s aspect of originality. It presents what is relatively a simple story and premise with simple characters but the execution adds a layer of detail and intricacy.
At the very top of this review, I’m going to talk about the person who completely stole the show. Michael Hugo is simply outstanding at Passepartout, the French valet who is the subject of many comedic setups and accidents. Traditionally this places him in the traditional role of comic relief and when the comedic aspects of this character are worked into the plot there is a difficult balance which needs to be achieved to avoid this character becoming annoying. However, this is the special aspect of Hugo’s performance as his physicality and perfect comedic timing both vocally and physically demands that the audience respect not only his performance but also his character. His fourth wall breaking is done perfectly and it is never too much, in my opinion. At one point I simply could not tell if his fourth wall breaking was genuine or if it was a scripted piece of comedy and I feel that this really sums up Hugo’s ability to find a perfect balance in Passepartout’s character. His performance must simply be seen to be believed.
This production is very unique and adds an interesting level of detail to its simple shell, in how it handles the fight scenes as there are gulfs of space between the two characters but their hits still land. This is done to really highlight the perfect timing and relationship between the actor receiving the hits and the actor giving them. While at some points, due to the gulf of space, it was difficult to keep my eyes on both parties this effect allowed the audience, particularly children, to appreciate the choreography and precision needed in order to achieve the effect. This is another aspect of this production I implore any theatre fans to see simply to see the effect as it truly highlights the hard-working nature of this cast in order to produce flawless aspects of a simultaneously simple and complex production.
The staging is also interesting in how they handle the boats. The actors manipulate physical comedy by leaning or by moving the set pieces to represent the waves. While this is interesting in itself it is heightened to the next level once the production begins to poke fun at the limitations of their own set; as the chairs and table do not sway unless manipulated by an actor. I personally loved this level of self-awareness and it added into the slightly educational aspect of this production for children regarding theatrical conventions.
When I looked over the audience for Tuesday night’s performance I could see that there was a strong interest in this show from children and I can certainly understand why due to the relatively simple outer shell. I believe that this is also shown in the characterization. Every character and their development is quite simple and is especially seen in Phileas Fogg. He begins as the traditional stout English gentleman who is a stickler for precision, routine and doesn’t show a great deal of emotion. Of course, throughout the show, he meets that special someone, Mrs. Aouda in this case, and his circumstances allow him to show emotion towards her and others around him. While this fits in perfectly into the production’s ability to be enjoyed by both children and adults when he has strong characters like Passepartout and Mrs. Aouda opposite him, even with Andrew Pollard’s lovely acting, he paled in comparison and became simply the coincidental hero rather than a proactive man.
The appeal of this show for children is seen in levels beyond the simple and colorful depictions of the foreign lands they travel to. There is a slight pantomime aspect to the production which is achieved by audience participation and the relationship between Passepartout and the ‘villain’ Inspector Fix, who after the top of act two received boos and hisses. I will say now that if you wish to make the most of the audience participation I would strongly recommend sitting in the stalls as you seem to miss the majority of it if you are sat in the circle. This pantomime aspect is strongest at the top of Act Two which works very well to bring the children in the audience back into the story.
However, there was quite a surprising issue within the show. It is not a massive one but one that I am simply not used to experiencing at Cardiff’s New Theatre. There were some volume issues present in the dialogue of Passepartout and Phileas Fogg in particular. It was difficult to discern as to whether this is down to specifically microphone issues as there was no cracking it was simply a case of these two characters being quiet, as in Fog’s case, and difficult to fully understand in others. I do understand that Passepartout’s accent is not made for diction but I do feel that the volume of the dialogue in these two characters is something to be looked into.
To conclude, this production really is an unexpected delight due to the talented cast. It appeals to children as an introduction to theatrical conventions such as staging and the differences between vocal and physical comedy, but it also perfectly appeals to adults. I would recommend this production if you want non-demanding light relief to introduce friends and family to theatre. As it is touring across the Christmas period this would make an excellent family treat and Hugo’s performance is simply a gift.
Around the World in 80 Days is running at Cardiff’s New Theatre until Sunday the 24th of September. Book your tickets for Cardiff here: http://www.newtheatrecardiff.co.uk/what’s-on/around-the-world-in-80-days/
For other tour locations visit the official website here: http://www.80dayslive.com/
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