Our theatre reviewer, Sam Sims, shares his thoughts on Around the World in 80 Days at Hull Truck Theatre.
In a co-production with Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake and based on the classic 1872 novel by Jules Verne, Hull Truck promises to take us on an adventure of global proportions with Around the World in 80 Days. One cannot underestimate the power of escapism at a time when many of us are worrying about more than whether to take a brolly out or not and this marvellous show certainly spins reality on its axis, leaving us dizzy and practically exploding with glee.
Stefan Adegbola’s Phileas Fogg is seemingly a simple man of simple means when we first meet him. He gets up, has tea, greets passersby on his way to work, and later, by the light of his oil lamp, retires to bed with a satisfied yawn before starting it all again the next morning. It’s a comfortable existence that runs like clockwork with Fogg, a mathematical and precise man, at peace with his routine. It’s surprising then, that he decides to bet his entire fortune on travelling the world in eighty days. An impossible feat! What could possibly go wrong?
Around the World in 80 Days is an epic story that quite literally promises to show us the world. Even before we’re transported to India, Japan and the very exotic Liverpool, the audience is catapulted into the story. Louie Whitemore’s stage design is just one well crafted aspect of this: the stage floor looking like a fiery, swirling globe that reveals cleverly manipulated trap doors and rotating walkways, Fogg’s unorthodox bed and later, a rocking train carriage and the balcony of a ship adorned with flowers. Going into the show, one might expect that the audience would have to suspend their disbelief in order to get on board and though I would like to have seen more use of vibrant colours, particularly when we’re in the East, I, and by the looks of others around me, didn’t have to suspend too much. Whitemore and Chuma Emembolu’s lighting design also works well in tandem to give the audience much to marvel at.
The use of sound is also incredibly impactful here. From the repetitive ticking of the clock and pouring of tea as Fogg does Groundhog Day to the overarching theme music that is chilled and ‘new agey’, I welcomed and looked forward to every aspect of Benjamin Hudson and Anna Wheatley’s sound work.
Equally as impressive and fitting is the movement. The choreography is ambitious but not alienating, every performer in sync whether they’re dancing on a ship, chasing after bandits or fighting comically on a train. There’s a deep blend of serenity and humour here that has been captured so well by Jess Williams and Claire Llewellyn’s movement and fight direction, respectively.
One couldn’t travel the world without seeing some animals and Naomi Oppenheim’s puppetry certainly brings us that with a scarily lifelike elephant, which is a delight for kids especially. A squawking, violent seagull also elicits loud guffaws from the audience whenever it flies onto the stage.
Undoubtedly a highlight in Around the World in 80 Days are the performances. Everybody is really giving it their all with the ensemble playing less and more featured roles. The absolute standout, however, is Miriam O’Brien as Passepartout, Fogg’s valet who just wants a quiet life. Her comic timing is impeccable, versatility commendable, and she just really pulls off a green suit. I was excited for what was to come whenever she graces the stage, and she’s on it a lot.
Ultimately, there’s a lot to love in Around the World in 80 Days. On a surface level, it’s impressive but it also confronts some substantial themes. The show could shy away from colonialism – a pretty dark, yet necessary part of our history that should absolutely no longer be ignored. “Why do the British need everything to be in their own image?” Saba Shiraz’s Mrs Aouda asks. Kudos to the show’s writer, Laura Eason, for acknowledging it.
Getting out of your own head and just living life is something I’m sure many of us try to do – sometimes successfully and sometimes not. I found Fogg’s regimented and some would say dreary existence, deeply relatable. The story doesn’t portray him as a square and a person that, just because his brain works in a certain way, is controlled by it – he can still enjoy routine but have a taste for adventure. Around the World in 80 Days also shows that love can grow organically, can be about mutual respect and even be platonic. This is a wonderful show spearheaded by director Hal Woods that combines so many fantastic elements that come together in perfect harmony. What a treat for the whole family.