THE circus will leave town after a three-day home run concludes with today’s two performances, ahead of a nationwide tour until July 22 in Tilted Wig’s collaboration with York Theatre Royal.
Creative director Juliet Forster’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1873 novel was first staged on the school playing fields of York in the socially distanced summer of 2021, big-topped off by a finale back indoors at the Theatre Royal.
After rehearsals on Sara Perks’s fabulous travelling set in the Studio, the striped flags and organ music of Vernes Circus have taken up temporary residence in the main house with a multi-disciplined cast of five tasked with playing circus performers in turn playing a minimum of two of Verne’s characters each.
In prickly English Victorian gent Phileas Fogg’s wager with his stuffy Reform Club cronies that he can traverse the globe in 80 days, Forster wastes no time in pricking the balloon that Fogg travelled in such a form of transportation. In screen versions, yes; in the Frenchman’s novel, no. Besides, budget constraints rule it out, decrees Alex Phelps’s punctilious Ringmaster.
The imagination, however, needs no budget, and so, just as in Patrick Barlow’s parody re-creation of John Buchan’s novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s film of The 39 Steps, Forster’s cast must apply physical theatre panache, dextrous elasticity, props and even costume to convey anything from an elephant to a train and a trading vessel in often unexpected ways.
Calling on the stone-faced grace of Buster Keaton, Phelps’s immaculate, unflustered, tea-drinking, not-always-scrupulous Fogg/immaculate/flustered Ringmaster seeks to control proceedings with the help/hindrance of Wilson Benedito’s Clown/servant Passepartout.
Weaving their way into the fast-moving, helter-skelter story are Genevieve Sabherwal’s Trick Rider/Indian princess Aouda, Katriona Brown’s whip-cracking Acrobat/Nellie Bly and returning 2021 cast member Eddie Mann’s Knife Thrower/spiv Detective Fox. From assorted accents to assorted circus skills, they reveal a restless, constantly changing repertoire of theatrical alacrity with relish.
As the revolving signage announces each new destination, so everything could be in too much of a rush. Except that Forster runs the parallel story of ground-breaking American journalist Nellie Bly’s real-life race around the world, related by Brown’s Bly in elegant travelogue prose that benefits the production with its change of pace, all the while amusingly winding up Phelps’s Fogg.
Favourite scenes? The slow-motion bridge collapse denoted by ladders and the heavy-drinking tussle between Mann’s Fix and Benedito’s Passepartout on a see-saw, where everything is in the balance.
As you would want, Forster’s second act surpasses the first, the company’s teamwork becoming ever funnier, their flamboyant, fun circus acrobatics stacking up, with high praise for Asha Jennings-Grant’s movement direction and Edwin Gray’s sound design too. Perks’s designs and costumes delight throughout.
Just as York Theatre Royal’s The Railway Children took off for London and Toronto success, Tilted Wig must be thanked for giving new air to Forster’s Around The World In 80 Days, now travelling around the country for 171 days. Fans of Mischief’s mischief-making, calamitous comedies will love it.
York box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. The tour visits Cast, Doncaster, from July 5 to 8; castdoncaster.com. Age guidance: five plus.