Around the World in 80 Days at Octagon Theatre, Bolton – review

The globe-trotting tale makes a comeback

80 days 1
The cast of Around the World in 80 Days, © Pamela Raith

This production of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days could equally be called ‘planes, trains and automobiles’. Or ‘hot air balloons, trains and automobiles’. Either way, it’s more about how its characters get around, than the parts of the world they see. For once, it’s true to describe the story as about the journey, rather than the destinations.

That journey begins when Lady Phileas Fogg picks up the gauntlet thrown down to beat the male record for circumnavigating the world in 90 days. She’s bet against by a newspaper tycoon who enlists one of his writers to befriend then impede her.

Squiggles meander around the auditorium, styled like doodles that complement the child-friendly aesthetic, but also resemble jet trails in the sky or train steam in the air. They contrast the “straight lines” Phileas says shape her life. “Rigid and structured”, she speaks with the same precision: each sentence as crisp and clean as if she were drawing a line on a map from point to point.

It’s a totally winning performance from Polly Lister. Her bewildered looks subtly suggest a woman who’s lost her own bearings after the deaths of her son and husband – her own navigational reference points. Although her grief isn’t explored enough – even passing through post-war France, where her son died in battle, is only glancingly acknowledged – there’s clear portrayal of her male companions as surrogates. Her matronly tone as she’s corralling them implies she’s enjoying regaining a maternal role.

She’s slowed down less by journalist Amit’s sabotage, and more by the show’s serviceable, pedestrian songs. They’re quaint and dainty rather than showstoppers, although the ensemble helps lift the group numbers.

The real ingenuity on display is Katie Scott’s design. The stage initially appears as a deceptively plain map. Soon, panels are flipped out with the country’s names, and flags are planted that track the days. A ramp runs on from the entrances with lines like train tracks, illuminated in the colours of the countries’ flags. For the hot air balloon sequence, swings drop down from the ceiling and hang in the fog.

Although the staging is efficient at sprinting through the locations, with a pace and energy that feel like we’re genuinely in a race, it does less to transport us to them. However, setting is vividly created for a Diwali where bright sheets are billowed into undulating light and colour, then wrapped into scarves, skirts and – brilliantly – the shape of an elephant. There are further physical touches when the cast ripple their costumes and faces to show the wind tearing through them as they escape a moving train.

It’s all sufficiently peppy, with the help of some knowingly daft, globetrotting accents from Kai Spellman’s butler and Emma Fenney’s Al Capone. It might lack darkness from Robert Jackson’s feeble villain, Sullivan, and enough jeopardy, despite forewarning the dangers and obstacles that’ll come her way. But it provides a zippy adventure families should enjoy being whisked along on.