REVIEW: Around The World In 80 Days, Tilted Wig/York Theatre Royal, at York Theatre Royal, today, 2.30pm, 7.30pm ****

Ride on time: Alex Phelps’s Phileas Fogg in Around The World In 80 Days. Picture: Anthony Robling

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.

After CBeebies’ Romeo And Juliet, Alex Phelps and Juliet Forster reunite for Around The World In 80 Days circus escapades

On your bike: Alex Phelps, front, in rehearsal for his dual roles as the Ringmaster and Phileas Fogg in Around The World In 80 Days

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.

Around The World In 80 Days director Juliet Forster

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.

Alex Phelps: Actor noted for his comic skills of physicality and playfulness

“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.

Alex Phelps’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek, back row, centre, with Cassie Vallance’s Fabian and Fine Time Fontayne’s Sir Toby Belch, winding up Claire Storey’s Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre’s Twelfth Night in York in 2019. Picture: Charlotte Graham

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.

York Theatre Royal teams up with Tilted Wig for second Around The World In 80 Days travels, this time going nationwide

The cast for Tilted Wig and York Theatre Royal’s Around The World In 80 Days

TILTED Wig are teaming up with York Theatre Royal for a nationwide tour of Around The World In 80 Days from February 2 to July 22 2023. Rehearsals will begin in York next Monday.

Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s story first toured all four corners of York in August 23 days in 2021, not in a hot-air balloon, but on a trailer, whose sides could be dropped down for the set to be built around, 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 Tilted Wig’s new tour of England, Scotland and Wales will open from February 2 to 4.

In Forster’s version, Verne’s original characters are transformed, embracing different modes of transport in the frantic race to travel around the world in 80 Days. Original cast member Eddie Mann will be joined by Alex Phelps, Katriona Brown, Wilson Benedito and Genevieve Sabherwal, who each multi-role as the rag-tag band of travelling circus performers embarks on a daring mission to recreate Phileas Fogg’s journey.

Eddie Mann: Returning to the roles of the Knife Thrower and Detective Fix

Phelps will play the determined Ringmaster and Fogg, having appeared in As You Like It for Shakespeare’s Globe/CBeebies, When Darkness Falls for Park Theatre and Hamlet for Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre.

Actor and puppeteer Brown will be the Acrobat and Nellie Bly; Sabherwal, the Trick Rider and Aouda; Wilson Benedito, the Clown and Passepartout, and New Zealander Mann, the sharp-witted Knife Thrower and Detective Fix.

Writer-director Forster said in 2021: ““There was a risk that a show would have a stuffy gentlemen’s club, outdated feel to it because it’s a male-dominated story, so I thought, ‘how do we make it a play for today?’. That’s when I decided to put Nellie Bly’s story in there too.”

For the uninitiated, Nellie Bly was the pen name of Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, an American journalist, industrialist, inventor and charity worker, who made her own record-breaking trip around the world – and did so with more alacrity than the fictional Fogg.

The original York Theatre Royal cast for Around The World In 80 Days in August 2021, including Eddie Mann, centre. Picture: Charlotte Graham

“I read her book about going around the world: a beautiful piece of travel journalism with such lovely detail, and I thought, ‘maybe we should just do her story’, but then I decided, ‘no, let’s look at finding a form for a play that fits bit both stories in’,” Juliet said.

Move forward to 2023’s revival, and the director says: “I was amazed that we generally know more about Jules Verne’s fictional characters than we do about Nellie Bly. I knew I had to tell her story. I found that this approach allowed interesting themes to emerge around whose stories get told, whose stories dominate and who should stand aside to give space to the untold ones.”

Tour producer Tilted Wig Productions was formed in 2017 by Katherine Senior and Matthew Parish, who have more than 15 years of experience producing and touring plays throughout the UK, taking 20-plus productions on the road, such as Philip Meeks’s Murder, Margaret, and Me, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and The Picture Of Dorian Gray.

York Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster: Writer-director of Around The World In 80 Days

“Our shows now tour around some of the biggest theatres in the UK, yet our original ethos has always remained the same: whether Titled Wig are producing a classic play or a vibrant new adaptation, we always aim to inspire a bright and innovative creative team to take our stories UK-wide,” they say.

Juliet is joined in the production team by set designer Sara Perks; lighting designer Alexandra Stafford; composer and sound designer Ed Gray; movement director Asha Jennings-Grant and fight director Jonathan Holby.

Tilted Wig and York Theatre Royal present Around The World In 80 Days at York Theatre Royal on February 2, 2pm and 7.30pm, February 3, 7.30pm, and February 4, 2.30pm and 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Also: Cast, Doncaster, July 5 to 8; castdoncaster.com. Age guidance: seven plus.

The tour poster for Tilted Wig and York Theatre Royal’s Around The World In 80 Days

UPDATE 9/1/2023

REHEARSALS have begun today for Tilted Wig and York Theatre Royal’s six-month tour of Around The World In 80 Days.

Gathering for the first time were Wilson Benedito, left, Katrina Brown, Genevieve Sabherwal and Alex Phelps. Missing was fifth cast member memberEddie Mann, who will join rehearsals later. Picture by Anthony Robling.