Tapping into the Victorian fascination with speed, time and travel, Jules Verne’s much-adapted novel Around the World in 80 Days tells the tale of debonair gentleman traveller Phileas Fogg and his mission to circumnavigate the globe in record time.
This musical adaptation by Phil Willmott and Annemarie Lewis Thomas (which marks an improvement in the Union’s acoustics) engages in plenty of panto-ish nudge-nudge-wink-wink clowning, to which director Brendan Matthew grants free rein amid an array of luggage, ladders, hot-air balloons and elephants.
It’s hard to ignore the story’s problematic elements. ‘Cultural sensitivity’ was largely unknown to the Victorians but the broad stereotypes and the white, male saviours swooping in to save the Indian Princess Aouda from the practice of “suttee” (a widow burning herself to death upon the demise of her husband) have a Disney-ish quality that feels like a step backwards, even in a comic romp.
As Fogg, the suave Sam Peggs brings stiff-upper-lip British entitlement and the gradual thawing of a heart underneath a strictly scheduled existence, and Connor Hughes is endearing as gullible Gallic valet Passepartout. While many of the cast members are recent drama graduates – the large ensemble is uniformly enthusiastic – the authoritative comic timing of Ceris Hine as trilling, tea-sipping missionary Miss Fotherington is a pleasure.
The songs are variable, the best being the earwormish Passepartout and Fogg and Aouda’s love-hate duet What Do I Love?. But just as Fogg would get much more out of his travels if he stopped to look at the sights, this production, in all its madcap energy, might benefit from taking a deep breath and reflecting on what it wants to convey.