Review: Around the World in 80 Days (Union Theatre)
Jules Verne's tale of an epic cross-global quest gets a musical adaptation
It isn't hard to see what attracted Phil Willmott to Jules Verne's Victorian odyssey as the basis for a family-friendly musical. The contrasting, exotic locations travelled through and colourful characters encountered as eccentric toff Phileas Fogg and his French manservant Passepartout circumnavigate the globe in a bid to win a fortune-changing bet, allows for a wide variety of musical styles and a fast-moving narrative.
Willmott has done a capable job of filleting the adventure novel and Brendan Matthews' likeable production moves at a brisk pace – always an advantage when attempting to engage younger audience members – and makes up for in enthusiasm and energy what it sometimes lacks in finesse. At it's best it is authentically enchanting and at it's worst...well, you certainly won't be bored.
Justin Williams and Jonny Rust have created a simple but rather lovely set that marries good honest wood, an ocean frieze, random lamps and the inner workings of an old-fashioned clock: it's a malleable but atmospheric environment for the globe-trotting derring-do to unfold against. In a poster billing I've never encountered before, it says that Willmott wrote the original songs but that the score is by Annemarie Lewis Thomas 'based on tunes by Phil Willmott'. Well, whatever that means, some of the tunes are gorgeous, none more so than the lump-in-the-throat melodious anthem "Eighty Days" that opens and closes the show. Another highlight is a lively gospel-inflected choral number where a jolly Mormon farmer (a winning Mikulas Urbanek) extols the virtues of having multiple wives. Good luck explaining that one to your pre-teen children!
This number comes in the second half as does an inventively staged, innuendo-laden musical sequence set in a Hong Kong opium den, which feels like a slightly ham-fisted attempt to connect with adult audiences in what is essentially a light, youth-oriented entertainment.
Not all of the jokes land – an unfortunate by-product of the Union's variable acoustics – and it is regrettable that in lieu of a proper band, or even just a solo piano, the music is played by a tinny keyboard over what sounds like a horribly undernourished backing track. This is made all the more noticeable by the fact that the singing – both choral and solo – is remarkably strong, verging at times on absolutely wonderful. In many smaller-scale musicals there is a danger of the band over-whelming the singers; if anything, the opposite is true here.
Sam Peggs impressively conveys Fogg's stiff-upper-lip awkwardness and gives us a hero we can really root for, while Jasmin Minjoot sings her heart out as the Indian princess he rescues on his travels. As the villain hell-bent on stopping his prowess – a fairly major departure from the Verne original – Robert Oliver also sings magnificently but could do with dialling down the manic glee a few notches: this is the tiny Union Theatre, not the London Palladium. Ceris Hines shows real comic flair as a dotty Englishwoman they encounter in the Far East. As Fogg's Gallic sidekick, Connor Hughes has charm although the decision to insert him into the centre of every company number does mean that it wears a little thin.
The well-drilled, personable ensemble hurl themselves with aplomb and considerable expertise into Mitchell Harper's often impressive choreography. Although the show falls a little awkwardly between the twin stools of kids theatre and satirical adult thrills, it has charm, inventiveness, some bite, and a couple of cracking tunes.