Behind the scenes as York Theatre Royal presents a touring production of Around the World in 80 Days

Ah travel, remember that? Cards on the table, I’ve discovered of late during conversations with friends that there might be something a little odd about me – I don’t like holidays.

Emilio Iannucci as Phileas Fogg. (Picture: York Theatre Royal).
Emilio Iannucci as Phileas Fogg. (Picture: York Theatre Royal).

Don’t get me wrong, a break from work I welcome as much as anyone, but actually going away, getting on a plane, train, automobile, is honestly the opposite of my idea of fun and relaxation.

Lockdown has suited me. It’s also why a theatre production of Around the World in 80 Days suits me just fine. It also, paradoxically, might just be the perfect sop to those who are the diametric opposite of me and love and miss travel.

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Juliet Forster is the director bringing a production of the show to York this summer. “As one of the characters in the play says ‘if you can’t travel to exciting parts of the globe this summer, don’t despair, we are here to bring the world to you’. That’s the spirit of this production really,” she says.

Ali Azhar in rehearsal for Around the World in 80 days. (Picture: York Theatre Royal).

Forster is the creative director of York Theatre Royal and has provided the script for this adaptation, which tours to various outdoor venues around York, before returning to the theatre at the end of the month.

The 1872 Jules Verne story has of course sparked a number of adaptations, with theatre, cartoon, and film all getting in on the action, including the ill-advised Steve Coogan-Jackie Chan vehicle, the less said of which perhaps the better.

It feels like the story might really be having its moment as it takes its audience around the globe, while most of the globe is forced to stay at home.

“I first suggested that we should create a summer show based on Around the World in 80 Days last autumn – somewhat jokingly – as an acknowledgement of the way travel around the world had ground to a halt and it looked like none of us would be going anywhere again any time soon.

“I thought the piece would conjure up exotic places and give audiences a taste of somewhere else when we were all well and truly grounded.

“I must confess that, at that point in time, I hadn’t actually read the book and only had a faint impression of the story from probably having seen a film

of it a long time ago – I was convinced there was a hot air balloon in it.”

While Forster’s adaptation of the Jules Verne story will be sans hot air balloon, it will have added resonance and it seems fair to say, politics – a story about movement and the freedom thereof in 2021 can’t help but be political.

There’s more too. “When I did read the novel, I was very amused by the way Jules Verne, a Frenchman, poked fun at the stiff upper lip of the English gentleman and I loved its fast-paced, adventurous storyline,” she says.

“But I was also surprised at how little detail there was of the countries Phileas Fogg journeys through. Perhaps inevitably, as they are trying to make it around the world in as little time as possible and Verne hadn’t visited many of the places on the route when he wrote it.

As I was pondering how to introduce more of this into the play, I came across the real life journalist Nellie Bly, who did her own trip around the world in 1889 and even got to meet Jules Verne himself on the way.

“I was astonished: how could it be that we all seem to know so much more about a fictional character created by Verne than the real woman who set the first record for circumnavigating the globe by both land and sea? What’s more – she was a pretty good travel writer.”

With the discovery and the gift of a character – a real-life character – like Bly, Forster set to work weaving together both the imagined world and story of Verne with the factual tale of Bly.

“As I began to imagine a world where both narratives could co-exist, the theme of travelling developed into a travelling theatre show and I began to notice how many references there are to circus and processions in both stories and so my circus troupe were born.

“After all, who better to conjure up many different locations and forms of transport in an exciting way than those who are experts at selling what isn’t there?”

Forster has gathered an impressive cast to tell her story, including French-Moroccan actor Ali Azhar, New Zealander Eddie Mann and Emilio Iannucci, who plays Phileas Fogg.

He says: “Fogg doesn’t fit into things – things seems to fit around him and his routine. While a lot of the characters in this show are loud and bold, he is content to plough on at his own pace and his own volume.

“I admire that he doesn’t worry about how people perceive him, he is a good example of how important it is to get to know someone before judging them too quickly.”

So, for the purists, Phileas Fogg does indeed make an appearance.

Forster says: “Verne’s story is a lot of fun as the characters race against time to complete a full circuit of the Earth and in our version fact and fiction go head to head.

“It’s going to be a joyful, very energetic, very silly and highly acrobatic retelling of the story, delivering the kind of experience that live theatre does best.”

Of course, live theatre. The show will be performed outdoors at a number of venues around York, adding yet another layer to this production.

As Forster says: “So this play is about the joy of movement, in every sense.”

Around the world in 80 days tour

York Theatre Royal’s production of Around the World in 80 Days, will be touring outside venues this month.

Carr Junior School playing fields, August 6-8.

Copmanthorpe Primary School, August 10-12.

Archbishop Holgate’s School, August 14-16.

Joseph Rowntree School, August 18-21.

The show will be presented indoors at York Theatre Royal August 25-28.

For full details of the touring programme and to book tickets for outside venues and at the theatre visit yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or call 01904 623568.