When the St James Theatre’s new production of Around the World in 80 Days was announced, it sounded like it had all the makings of a fun Christmas romp for all the family. The cast, including the estimable Robert Portal (as Phileas Fogg) and Tony Gardner (as the dogged Inspector Fix) was fantastic; director Lucy Bailey has a fine track record of staging innovative and exciting drama; the plot offers watertight adventure and derring-do, hopefully updated by adapter Lucy Eason into something both slyly self-aware and respectful of the grand Victorian tradition that the books exists in; and then there’s Passepartout. How could this not be a great evening out?
Five minutes in, however, I turned to my companion and shook my head dolefully. ‘A bad business’, I moaned. Granted, some of my discomfort stems from the theatre’s ultra-steep, ultra-cramped seating – if you have long legs, you are going to suffer – but much more came from my bewilderment and bemusement at the dire way in which this has been travestied. From a long, boring opening sequence in which Portal’s Fogg is shown repeatedly rising and heading to his club with the worst kind of half-hearted ‘physical theatre’ to the overwrought yet anti-climatic conclusion, this is one of the very worst things I’ve seen at the theatre this year. And don’t forget, I suffered through The Hard Problem.
The two major problems are Eason’s script and Bailey’s direction, rather than the cast (although we’ll come to Simon Gregor’s Passepartout in a moment). Eason, apparently a playwright of some renown, seems to specialise in rather weightier drama than this usually, which is obvious from the lack of jokes. It’s also noticeable that the plotting is confusing and muddled, putting off the children in the audience; a young boy next to me repeatedly, and plaintively, asked ‘What’s going on?’ If only I knew, I wanted to say to him. And as for Bailey, it’s clear what she was aiming for, in terms of a fast-moving, energetic production with lots of RUNNING and SHOUTING and NOISE and actors playing multiple parts and all manner of props being brought into play to denote – what? I honestly couldn’t work out what the point of it all was.
The best performance by some distance comes from Shanaya Rafaat as Fogg’s romantic interest, Mrs Aouda. Even with the thin material that she has, Rafaat manages to make her character poignant, graceful and sympathetic. Portal is fine as Fogg although sadly devoid of really funny moments to get his teeth into, Gardner (so good in Fresh Meat and The Thick Of It as devilishly charismatic antagonists) seems miscast as a stock bumbling comic copper and the rest of the small ensemble bustle without making much impression. The exception is Simon Gregor, who adopts the sort of wincingly caricatured ‘Freeeench’ accent as Passepartout that doesn’t so much summon up images of berets, strings of garlic and accordions as a particularly grim evening down Café Rouge, and being mugged after you leave.
I was hoping for an enjoyable couple of hours along the lines of the hilarious Thirty-Nine Steps, in which Portal appeared, but this really isn’t good enough. As I was leaving, I was accosted by a desperate-looking man who asked if I’d been to see the play. ‘Yes’, I confessed. ‘Did you enjoy it?’ ‘No, not really.’ He looked as hurt and disappointed as if I’d just announced that I’d set fire to the theatre. But this really was a dismal excuse for entertainment, hurt feelings or not.
Around the World in 80 Days at the St James’s Theatre until 17th January 2016. Running time approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes including an interval. For more information and tickets visit the website.