‘Still haven’t the Foggiest idea what family show to see this summer? This is the one’

Playing his hand: Emilio Iannucci’s Phileas Fogg with the scoffing gentlemen of the Reform Club (as played with bristling moustaches by Dora Rubinstein, Eddie Mann, Ali Azhar and Ulrika Krishnamurti) in York Theatre Royal’s Around The World In 80 days. All pictures: Charlotte Graham

REVIEW: York Theatre Royal in Around The World In 80 Days, Copmanthorpe Primary School Playing Fields, York

NO foreign holiday this summer? Let York Theatre Royal take you there, off the back of a trailer at a school playing field, transformed into a circus.

Wednesday, 7pm, Copmanthorpe Primary School: the yellow and red striped flags are fluttering in the night air in a circular formation to denote Vernes Circus is in town. Bobbing balloons and the persistently perky sound of a fairground organ add to the atmosphere.

Rather than inside a pop-up big top, we are in the open air, wrapped up for the English weather (last Friday evening’s show at Carr Junior School had to be called off after a thunderstorm warning). Safety first too, everyone is still mindful of social distancing, maintaining gaps between fold-up chairs. 

Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster has form for such theatrical enterprises, rolling out last winter’s Travelling Pantomime to 16 city wards. A case of taking theatre to the people, rather than expecting them to take themselves to the Theatre Royal, although this summer’s production will end with four days of indoor shows there after going around  four York schools in 16 days.

Dora Rubinstein’s resolute, irrepressible Nellie Bly, right, with Eddie Mann, Ali Azhar and Ulrika Krishnamurti’s circus performers in Around The World In 80 Days

She also repeats the panto template of a cast of five with multiple talents, while this time adding the writer’s credit to her directorial duties, just as she did when adapting Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet for CBeebies earlier this year.

We think we know French novelist Jules Verne’s story of a somewhat prickly English Victorian gentleman, Phileas Fogg, going around the globe in a hot air balloon. Stop right there. No sooner has Ali Azhar’s Clown started to blow up a balloon than he is told no such form of transportation was used by Fogg in the book; only in the myriad screen adaptations.

Financial constraints would prevent any balloon rides here, cautions Emilio Iannucci’s snappy Ringmaster.

Clown? Ringmaster? Surely, they were not in Verne’s story either? Indeed not, but Forster frames her adaptation around circus performers telling the tale, all her company taking on two main roles and more besides.

To complement the upstanding, moustachioed Iannucci’s Ringmaster/Fogg and French-Moroccan Azhar’s Clown/servant Passepartout, here come Ulrika Krishnamurti’s Trick Rider/Indian princess Aouda, New Zealander Eddie Mann’s Knife Thrower/spiv Detective Fox and Dora Rubinstein’s Acrobat/Nellie Bly.

The circus comes to town, or more specifically to four York school playing fields, as York Theatre Royal stages Around The World In 80 Days around York in 16 days, plus four days indoors at the Theatre Royal with Ali Azhar and Ulrika Krishnamurti as part of Juliet Forster’s cast of five

Mann will work his way through London, Liverpool, Scottish and American Deep South accents; the ultra-flexible Rubinstein, through Geordie, refined American, English South West and, a particular favourite, Hull, for a blunt sea captain.

Up against the clock, everything moves at pace, whether scene or character changes, storyline or the revolving signage that denotes arrival at the next destination. 

Hold that thought. Not quite everything moves so quickly. Fogg is always in too much of a rush to bother with describing where he is, but Nellie Bly is a groundbreaking American journalist whose travelogues are a joy to behold whenever Rubinstein’s resolute character settles for a restorative breather in a brilliant directorial decision by Forster .

Unlike Verne’s Fogg and his wager with his Reform Club cronies, Bly is not mere fiction. She really did traverse the world in a flight that knocked days off Fogg’s total, and yet her history-making story is not well known.  Forster puts that right, interweaving the tales in a way that both compliments and complements each other.

Forster’s production brings to mind the elasticity and stage electricity, the physical and mental fun and games, the deftness and daftness, of Patrick Barlow’s The 39 Steps and Mischief’s The Comedy About A Bank Robbery. Like those two West End hits, the more the show the progresses, the better it is, the more impressive the cast becomes, using props in unexpected ways, whether straw bales or bicycle wheels, or circus equipment that turns into a cell for Fogg.

Holed up: Emilio Iannucci’s Phileas Fogg in one of his myriad challenging scrapes in Around The World In 80 Days

One heavy-drinking scene with Mann’s Fix and Azhar’s Passepartout trying to balance but constantly on the move on a seesaw will live long in the memory.

Not only Forster and her livewire, fun, funny international company are on top form here: so too are Sara Perks’s evocative circus set and dapper costume designs; Asha Jennings-Grant’s dashing movement direction, circus acrobatics and smart choreography, and Ed Gray’s music and especially his 360-degree sound design that adds spectacularly to the rip-roaring drama.

Still haven’t the Foggiest idea of what family show to see this summer? This is the one. Roll up! Roll up!

Tickets can be booked on 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Suitable for age seven upwards.

Around The World In 80 Days performances still to come:

Copmanthorpe Primary School, tonight, 7pm.

Archbishop Holgate’s School, August 14, 7pm; August 15, 2pm and 6pm; Aug 16, 3pm and 7pm.

Joseph Rowntree School, August 18, 7pm; August 19, 3pm and 7pm; August 20, 7pm; August 21, 2pm and 6pm.

York Theatre Royal, August 25 to 28, 2pm and 7pm. Signed performance: August 26, 2pm.

Roll up! Roll up! Emilio Iannucci’s Ringmaster offers his welcome to Vernes Circus in York Theatre Royal’s Around The World In 80 Days. On stage too are circus performers Ali Azhar, Dora Rubinstein, Eddie Mann and Ulrika Krishnamurti

Roll up, roll up for York Theatre Royal’s Around The World In 80 Days on circus trailer parked on school playing fields

Emilio Iannucci, who will switch between The Ringmaster and Phileas Fogg, in rehearsal for York Theatre Royal’s circus-themed production of Around The World In 80 Days

YORK Theatre Royal is going global, visiting all four corners of York in 23 days with its summer family show Around The World In 80 Days.

Not in a hot-air balloon, but on a trailer, whose sides can be dropped down for the set to be built around, in the tradition of travelling players going from town to town.

“It’s not quite a pop-up theatre, but we can certainly taking everything around in the trailer,” says writer-director Juliet Forster.

After overseeing last winter’s debut Travelling Pantomime on its tour of 16 of York’s 21 wards, Theatre Royal creative director Juliet is taking her circus-themed adaptation of the Jules Verne novel to four York playing fields from tomorrow (August 6) to August 21. The last stop will be back at York Theatre Royal from August 25 to 28.

“Around The World In 80 Days is one of those titles that I’d had in the back of my mind, because it’s familiar, and such shows have worked well for us in the summertime,” says Juliet.

“Then, with all the disappointment of restrictions around travelling abroad still affecting plans for holidays, the story came back into my mind, possibly ironically, because we couldn’t go to all these places, but we could do so in a play.

Juggling roles: New Zealander Eddie Mann, who will play The Knife Thrower and Detective Fox in Juliet Forster’s production of Around The World In 80 Days

“Though it still took a little longer to make a final decision on it because none of the existing adaptations appealed.”

She took the matter into her hand: not only would she direct the show, but she would provide the new adaptation herself too in a “perfect opportunity for some armchair tourism – or, rather, picnic-blanket tourism”.

“I did the first draft in April, spending pretty much every day on it, and then did the second and third drafts over the next two months, in bits and pieces, when time allowed,” says Juliet, who also was at the helm of York Theatre Royal’s reopening show, Love Bites, on May 17 and 18.

She promises a “joyful, very energetic, very silly and highly acrobatic re-telling of the Verne’s adventure of Reform Club gentleman traveller Phileas Fogg, delivering the kind of experience that live theatre does best”, but that tells only half the story in the new two-hour version.

“Jules Verne’s tale is a lot of fun as the characters race against time to complete a full circuit of the Earth, but now fact and fiction go head to head as real-life investigative journalist Nellie Bly puts in an appearance,” says Juliet.

How come? “One of the things I felt with Verne’s text was that although it was a fun idea  – I’d seen the film, but I’d never read the book – when I did come to read it, it didn’t sum up the atmosphere of each place as much as I’d expected, because Fogg was whizzing around the world, so it didn’t give as much detail as I would have liked.

Roll up, roll up for Ulrika Krishnamurti’s circus skills as The Trick Rider in Around The World In 80 Days

“There was a risk that a show would have a stuffy gentlemen’s club, outdated feel to 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.

“When I worked with the Out Of Character company on Objects Of Terror, set in a Victorian cellar, the journalist character was based on Nellie, who had got herself committed to an asylum to blow the lid on what went on inside,” says Juliet.

“Nellie set the record for the fastest crossing of land and sea, and how ironic that we all know the fictional story of Phileas Fogg, and yet we don’t know about the real-life woman who did the same journey and did it quicker!

“So, 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’.

“Jules Verne’s story is out of copyright, so there were no complications over doing that.”

Balancing act: Ali Azhar preparing to play The Clown, as well as Passepartout, in Around The World In 80 Days

Juliet never settles for the easy option. “I can’t do a play without going, ‘why am I doing it now?’. I have to ask myself, ‘what is the relevance to today?’, and I think this adaptation brings a whole new perspective to it, but the Jules Verne story is very much still in there,” she says.

She has given the story a circus setting, a manoeuvre that frees up the imagination and removes the need for a big West End-style or silver screen budget. “It’s an opportunity to do it in an ultra-theatrical way,” says Juliet.

“We can use some of the skills we have in the cast to capture the essence of movement, as it’s story full of the joy of being on the move, so it stretches the limits of what we can do and it takes us to all these places, with sounds and music tipping our imagination into visualising each of them.”

One surprise will be the lack of hot-air balloon, but wait… “There is no hot-air balloon in the book! They put one in the 1956 film, the one with David Niven as Phileas Fogg, and it’s been in every version since,” says Juliet. “It’s even on the book cover now! We’ll make a sly reference to it, so watch out!

“I think the other reason the balloon is embedded in our heads because Jules Verne’s first successful book was called Five Weeks In A Balloon.”

Fittingly for a story rooted in international travel, Juliet’s cast has an international flavour: Emilio Iannucci, who will play The Ringmaster and Phileas Fogg, is of Italian heritage; French-Moroccan actor Ali Azhar, born in Paris, will be The Clown and Passepartout; Ulrika Krishnamurti, a singer of Indian classical music, will be The Trick Rider and Aouda, and Eddie Mann, in the roles of The Knife Thrower and Detective Fox, is a New Zealander who moved over here a decade ago.

In the basket: Contortionist Dora Rubinstein fits in some practice for playing The Acrobat in Around The World In 80 Days

“Although I wanted to have an international flavour to the show, I wasn’t sure I’d get it,” reveals Juliet. “But I knew Ali had a great French accent, as well as being a good mover, from seeing him in Shakespeare Rose Theatre’s Henry V in 2019, and so he was ideal for Passepartout.

“I’d seen Ulrika in Katie Posner’s production of Made In India when it came to the Theatre Royal Studio, where she really stood out as being fun and very playful.

“With Eddie, I’d actually forgotten he was a New Zealander until we spoke on Zoom, but that’s what circus is: international. It shouldn’t just be British voices!”

York Theatre Royal in Around The World In 80 Days:

Carr Junior School, August 6, 7pm;  August 7,  3pm and 7pm; August 8, 2pm and 6pm.

Copmanthorpe Primary School, August 10, 7pm; August 11 and 12, 3pm and 7pm.

Archbishop Holgate’s School, August 14, 7pm; August 15, 2pm and 6pm; Aug 16, 3pm and 7pm.

Joseph Rowntree School, August 18, 7pm; August 19, 3pm and 7pm; August 20, 7pm; August 21, 2pm and 6pm.

York Theatre Royal, August 25 to 28, 2pm and 7pm. Signed performance: August 26, 2pm.

Suitable for age 7+. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Writer-director Juliet Forster: “Delivering the kind of experience that live theatre does best”

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