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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
Copyright of The Press, York