Shameful confession time: despite this being the ninth year of free theatre at the Scoop amphitheatre next to London’s City Hall, and despite my having worked no more than five minutes’ walk away for nearly as long, Friday was my first attendance at Steam Industry Free Theatre’s programme of events.
The title of the company’s 2011 season is Dangerous Journeys. Later in the evening, Bertold Brecht’s The Mother would undertake a personal, political and metaphorical journey. However, the evening kicks off with the repertory company taking a more literal approach, with Jules Verne’s eccentric Englishman Phileas Fogg (Eugene Washington) circumnavigating the globe in order to win a bet.
First staged ten years ago at BAC, director Phil Wilmott has “streamlined” his free adaptation (including a hot air balloon ride inspired more by Disney’s adaptation than Verne’s original novel) into a single act of just over an hour. This does mean the journey rattles past in places, allowing Fogg and his faithful (if not always competent) companion Passepartout to reach India at breakneck speed.
It is in this part of the journey that the story really starts to come alive, first as Fogg and Passepartout meet Princess Aouda (given an infectious, and delightfully feminist, spin by Suzanne Ahmet), then travel on an imaginatively rendered grumpy elephant before rescuing Aouda from being sacrificed on her late husband’s funeral pyre.
Throughout, it is a combination of Joseph Wicks’ comedic turn as Passepartout and some wonderful songs by Annemarie Lewis Thomas that keep the energy of this vibrant musical going. A particular musical highlight comes as the travelling trio find themselves in Salt Lake City, Utah, with a comedy number that predates the current Broadway smash The Book of Mormon by a full decade.
Quite how this show would go down on colder, rainier days I don’t know – I suspect the cast may have enough energy to do the show justice, but whether the audience would is another matter. On Friday’s warm, sunny evening, though, it was a pleasure to watch.
Around the World in 80 Days is playing at 6pm, Thursday-Sunday at 6pm (followed by The Mother at 8pm) until September 4.