Robert Tanitch reviews Around the World in 80 Days at St James Theatre, London SW1
Phileas Fogg and his French valet, Passepartout, depart from London on October 2, 1872. If Fogg is to win his £20,000 wager they have to be back by December 21.
There were stage versions in Paris the moment Jules Verne’s novel was published in 1873 and there have been stage and film versions ever since, including a disastrous musical in New York in 1946 by Orson Welles and Cole Porter.
The most famous version remains the 1956 Michael Todd film with David Niven as Fogg and the Mexican comedian Cantinflas as Passepartout, Robert Newton as Inspector Fix and Shirley MacLaine as Aouda.
The film won 67 awards and made lots of money at the box office thanks to the spectacle and Todd’s gimmick of casting 48 big star names (including Noel Coward, John Gielgud, Marlene Dietrich, John Mills, Frank Sinatra) in cameo roles lasting mere seconds.
The moment everybody remembers ironically does not appear in the novel: the balloon journey over the Alps with Cantinflas scooping up some snow from a mountain peak for the champagne bucket
The trouble with the present stage version is that nothing really happens and there is no real urgency. It’s like watching a travelogue without the scenery and a schoolboy adventure story without the adventure.
Laura Eason’s script could have been wittier. Lucy Bailey’s cute mini-production relies on the personalities of the actors and mime. Robert Portal is Fogg, the quintessential imperturbable Brit who travels the world and takes no interest in either the scenery or the culture.
Simon Gregor is an amusing Cantinflas and Tony Gardner as Inspector Fix engages with the audience.