TILTED Wig are teaming up with York Theatre Royal for a nationwide tour of Around The World In 80 Days – in 171 days, to be precise – after a month of rehearsals in York.
Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s first toured all four corners of York in August 23 days in 2021, not in a hot-air balloon, but on a trailer, in the tradition of travelling players going from town to town.
Forster’s circus-themed production played four York playing fields – Carr Junior School, Copmanthorpe Primary School, Archbishop Holgate’s School and Joseph Rowntree School – followed by a last stop, back indoors, at the Theatre Royal, where producers Tilted Wig’s new tour of England, Scotland and Wales will open from Thursday to Saturday.
In Forster’s version, Verne’s original characters are transformed, embracing different modes of transport in Phileas Fogg’s fictional frantic race to travel around the world in 80 days.
One original cast member, New Zealander Eddie Mann’s sharp-witted Knife Thrower and Detective Fix, will be joined by Alex Phelps’s resolute Ringmaster and unscrupulous Fogg; actor-puppeteer Katriona Brown’s Acrobat and real-life globe-traveller Nellie Bly; Wilson Benedito’s Clown and Passepartout and Genevieve Sabherwal’s Trick Rider and Aouda.
Phelps had first made an impression on Forster when playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek with such brio in Joyce Branagh’s Jazz Age take on Twelfth Night for Shakespeare Rose Theatre in York in June 2019.
“That was the first time I’d seen Alex performing, though we’d met at Theatre By The Lake, and I was really keen to consider Alex for the role of Phileas Fogg last time around in 2021, when there were only two names I wanted on my list: Alex and Emilio (Iannucci), but Alex was already committed to doing Justin’s House for CBeebies.”
This time around, Emilio decided not to do the tour, much as he would have like to do so, opening the door for Alex.
“I was doing the CBeebies’ Christmas show when Juliet contacted me, and had a Zoom meeting with her while I was in the dressing room for Dick Whittington And His Cat,” he recalls. “I managed to find a quiet little corner where the wi-fi worked, while everyone wondered what was going on!”
And so, as fate would decree, Juliet has ended up working with both her preferred picks for Fogg. “It does feel like it was meant to happen this way,” she says. “It’s not that you have to typecast a particular role, but there is something about the essential nature, or spirit, of a person that sits right with the role, and that was the case with both Emilio and Alex.
“One of my strengths as a director is how I cast and I do a lot of work through the casting process, where interpretation of a character is a big part of that, and if someone is not quite aligned with my thinking…
“But Alex is completely right for it. Playfulness is really important in this role, and I would find it hard to work with someone who didn’t want to be playful, which also brings out the truthfulness.”
Alex concurs: “It’s an important element that can be overlooked, but you’re putting on a play that’s all about ‘playing’. Like two people playing tennis, you’re on either side of the net, and the other person has to hit it back.
“The audience are ahead of the cast – the circus performers playing Verne’s characters – where they know the goal is to complete the journey in 80 days, so the excitement is: how will they get there in that time?
“It’s a comedy, and I really believe great comedy has to tread the razor’s edge of great tragedy, as it does in Aguecheek’s case too, where’s it all very tragic for Aguecheek but very funny for the audience.”
Alex has been studying Buster Keaton for his latest role. “I’ve gone back to his films for Fogg because what he’s so good at is how his face never changes, but all his physical expression comes through his body and that tells the audience everything they need to know,” he says.
Juliet and Alex have worked together before, joining forces when she directed CBeebies’ version of Romeo And Juliet, recorded under lockdown restrictions. “Having seen how funny he is physically as an actor and knowing what a genuinely lovely person he is, I kept nagging the CBeebies’ producer to cast Alex as Mercutio, which was going to be a small role but needed someone who would fill it with personality immediately,” she says.
“Under Covid conditions, we had proximity devices to stop you getting within two metres of each other, lunch was at separate tables; everyone had to be completely separate at the hotel.
“It was difficult not to want to direct close-up, and you could only be close to someone for a maximum of 15 minutes in a day, but none of us got Covid, so maybe it was the best way to work, even if it was a bizarre experience.”
Alex would go on to do more CBeebies’ shows, not least being asked to join Justin Fletcher’s Mr Tumble in Justin’s House and making Christmas specials.
Now it is time for his playful Phileas Fogg to fly under Juliet’s direction.
Tilted Wig and York Theatre Royal present Around The World In 80 Days at York Theatre Royal on Thursday, 2pm and 7.30pm, Friday, 7.30pm, and Saturday, 2.30pm and 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Also: Cast, Doncaster, July 5 to 8; castdoncaster.com. Age guidance: five plus.