Frantic and frivolous fun
By Rebecca Waese
Adapted from Jules Verne’s 1873 novel, this production of Around the World in 80 Days (reinvented for the stage by Toby Hulse and directed by Terence O’Connell) is light-hearted, silly, and farcical fun. While the tone is inescapably dated in its colonial attitudes of English superiority, it has much to offer viewers who like slapstick comedy and don’t take stereotypes too seriously.
The play is self-aware, tongue-in-cheek and colludes with the audience at the impossibilities and the joys of staging such a massive production with just three actors playing 39 parts. Full of frenetic adventures and running gags, the play transports you back to the Great Victorian Age where Englishman Phileaus Fogg, (Ian Stenlake) wagers a fortune that he can circumnavigate the globe in just 80 days with his servant Passepartout (Pia Miranda) by his side. They are pursued throughout the adventure by Inspector Fix from Scotland Yard (Grant Piro) who is convinced that Fogg is a bank robber on the run.
Pia Miranda, as Passepartout, brings animated energy to the role and shows a knack for physical comedy. Grant Piro, is a stand-out as the obsessive Inspector Fix but even more captivating in his role as the storyteller with an illuminated map hat who guides the audience to imagine the journey through time and space, conjuring up so much with so little. Stenlake is a steady Fogg who may have been overshadowed on the night by the zeal and energy of the other outrageous characters but conveys a sense of the importance of order convincingly.
Merinda Backway’s set design is inventive and versatile using only a few crates and railings to create the elaborate transcontinental train, a ship, and one particularly delightful and wild hidden surprise. Lauren Richie’s gorgeous hats are worth a mention, adorned by miniature trains, binoculars, and other intricate symbols of the Victorian age.
Undoubtedly, Fogg’s Orientalist view of the world is outdated in 2016, and the Indian and Chinese accents rely on age-old wince-worthy stereotypes that reflect the time in which the novel was written. However, the scene in which Grant Piro plays the Indian Princess in drag at the end of the play is, unexpectedly, one of the finest moments of the show. Pico’s Indian Princess and Stenlake’s Fogg carry the audience’s hopes up in the air with them as Fogg leaves behind some of his earlier inhibitions and enjoys, with some subversive self-reflexivity, a bit of romance that has the audience rallying for him and his masculine princess.
The play is suitable for older children and fans of slapstick and physical humour but one scene may not be appropriate for young children, where the Indian princess widow is drugged and just about to burn on her husband’s funeral pyre before Passepartout performs a dramatic rescue. If old-fashioned farce is your cup of tea, this is fun physical humour from a simpler time of storytelling.
Around the World in 80 Days is playing at Alex Theatre in St. Kilda, Tues Aug 23- Sept 4 at 7:30 with matinees on Sat (2 pm) and Sun (3 pm).
Image by James Terry
Rebecca Waese is a Lecturer in Creative Arts and English at La Trobe University.