I went to see the Cambridge Junction’s Christmas show Around the World in 80 Days on Thursday night, and my heart is still warm and glowing from it, as if there is a nonchalant heap of red and gold coal behind an iron grate on the front of my chest. I had my first mulled wine of the Christmas season just before the show, and the first vibrant taste made me reflect that every year I cycle through forgetting and remembrance of the ornaments of the Christmas season. This diminishing glassful was the beginning of the remembering of the forgotten loveliness of mulling. Another forgotten loveliness, the story of Around the World in 80 Days, was also languishing, very, very dusty, in the far reaches of my memory, and it was brilliantly brought to life in this production by the award-winning company New International Encounter, with real Christmas charm, artistry, wonderful acting and a sumptuous revelling in the magic tricks of the theatre.
As I took my seat the house lights were still up, and the Victorian-costumed actors were gathered casually around an upright piano on stage, listening, as one of them played a sweet, simple, nostalgic tune. This excellent show would unfold many delights, but I particularly enjoyed this company’s handling of the fourth wall, that funny, strange, ethereal barrier between the show itself (the actors, stage and backstage) and the audience. This production’s fourth wall felt gentle, dismantled even, the cast aware of how the open space between us, if delicately handled, would charm us and absorb us into the story.
The story is about Phileas Fogg, an extraordinarily precise and punctual gentleman from London, who makes a bet with the other gentlemen at his club that he can travel around the world in 80 days (arriving just before Christmas). But this jaunt, accompanied by his faithful French manservant Passepartout, coincides with a robbery of the Bank of England, and looks suspiciously like a-run-for-it to the villain of the piece, the ‘extremely unpleasant’ Inspector Fix, who pursues Fogg all the way around the world. I read Around the World in 80 Days when I was about 11, so it was fascinating to see the story again through grown-up eyes. The story really belongs to its time: written by Jules Verne, the visionary science fiction writer of the Victorian age, it is about a moment when the world changed, a great hinge point in history when the scientific advances of the Enlightenment enabled people to move much more quickly around the Earth, powered by steam engines, on trains and ships, and, famously for this story, the hot air balloon. The show captures this sense of wonder for the scientific age, and for me, the wonder felt like a Victorian echo of our current technological leap forward. The production is a lush celebration of the aesthetic world of Victorian England: the stage was littered with potted palms, silk lampshades with bobble tassels, Chesterfield chairs, top hats, an upright piano on wheels. And the theme of time is enjoyably explored, through Phileas Fogg’s obsession with precision, the repetition of train and boat times, time’s collision with the chaos of adventures (a railway that runs out of track in the Indian jungle, a snowstorm on the American prairie).
One of the principle enjoyments of watching this production was seeing how the illusions of theatre were used to take us around the world: from Fogg’s gentlemen’s club in London, with its top-hatted and cigar-puffing men; to Egypt, with fez hats and dripping sweat; the Indian jungle, featuring fronds and an elephant…(yes, you heard me right, an ELEPHANT), Hong Kong, with pentatonic scales and lanterns on long bamboo poles, and on…the whole way around the world. An interesting part of this production’s deliciously permeable fourth wall was the backstage area, which was open for all our eyes to see, with props and instruments casually scattered everywhere, and trunks open and spilling costumes out. And out of this jumble of stuff, the company conjured scene after scene like a running magic show. When I came back from intermission, full of chocolate ice cream, one of the actors was abroad in the audience, doing rope tricks for the children. At one point he said, ‘you have to believe in magic for it to work’, and this struck me as symbolic of the show, and of theatre in general. And my heart skipped happily, and I couldn’t help smiling, because I still believe in magic, and in the theatre.
It’s also a story celebrating the values of Victorian England and the British Empire. Erm…I can’t write a post-colonial review in a post-colonial world without discreetly murmuring ‘ahem’ over the idea of ‘celebrating’ the British Empire…but [Gallic shrug], it’s a Christmas show. It’s for fun, isn’t it? This made me think about the larger context of theatre, of what and who it is for, and on reflection, I decided that this show was just for creating warmth and a sense of fantasy, to transport a theatre full of children around the world in 80 days and the adults with them back into a childlike appreciation of A Good Story, Well Told. And Jules Verne was writing from within his paradigm, his time. So there was an interesting element of temporality surrounding the story, the staging. And it made me consider that there are still unjust paradigms at play in our world, in our time, and society only deconstructs them in a very slow process of awakening. After this philosophical reconciliation of the issue, I relaxed about it, and then my eyes became sweet and misty at the thought of good, old England: its silliness, gentleness, the poignance of emotion felt but contained, its obsession with tea. These were all qualities embodied by Phileas Fogg, who is played ably and with a heart-warming vulnerability subtly glowing through a very English punctiliousness by Martin Bonger. Once Jose, my Spanish housemate who is also living permanently in the UK, said after a trip to Seville, ‘It’s a relief to be back. I come from such a savage culture’. [And then he sipped his tea, daintily.] And I feel the same, as an American living permanently abroad in England. It was a relief to come to England and find so much gentleness and peace everywhere. Of course it is not perfect – what society is? But it has these qualities, these very endearing English qualities. A funny refrain chiming throughout the show is Phileas importuning the passionate, French Passepartout, ‘Passepartout, please control your emotions!’
Ah…and now we come to Passepartout (‘It ees pronounced with a silentt ‘T’!!’). The friendship between Passepartout and Fogg is the emotional centre of the story, the warm hearth of the whole production. Although the various elements of the show were all extremely strong and fine, the performance of Passepartout by the immensely talented Stefanie Mueller (playing across gender, with a delicious French accent) was the standout highlight of the show for me. The French qualities of pragmatism joined to lyrical emotionality that she brought to the part were a beautiful counterpoint to the Englishness of Fogg. One of the only elements of the show that could be improved was the depiction of Fogg’s growing affection and returned loyalty to Passepartout, but I got the feeling this is one of the (very few) nuances that were a bit blunt on opening night, but which will mature as the show goes through its long holiday run. I’m going to see the show again next week, because I feel pulled back, irresistibly, to see Stefanie as Passepartout, and I want to take my friends to see it. Also, the Elephant – I want to see the Elephant again. And have more mulled wine and chocolate ice cream. And see more magic tricks. And have the heap of warm coals presently, metaphorically, serving as my heart gently stirred, the gold glowing, the ash drifting, the warmth catching.
From the New International Encounter Website:
Featuring a cast of six, the show will be playing from 8 December – 4 January 2015 in Cambridge with further touring planned in 2015. Director: Alex Byrne Set & Costume Design: Stefanie Mueller Lighting Designer: Christopher Nairne Musical Director: Carly Davis Cast: Martin Bonger, Carly Davis, Kieran Edwards, Ben Frimston, Keshini Misha, Stefanie Mueller Production Manager: Tom Cotterill