Theatre and book reviews by Janice Dempsey
AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS
Merrist Wood, Guildford 13th – 16th July 2022
The Guildbury’s open-air production based on Jules Verne’s fantasy/adventure novel is a miracle of invention and wit. With only his powerful faith in Bradshaw’s Railway Guide (the Bible of Victorian travellers) £20,000 in cash and his faithful manservant Jean Passepartout, Phileas Fogg, a rich, routine-bound business man, sets off to win a wager and prove to his friends that he can travel round the world using steam and locomotive power (there was no air flight at the time, despite the 20th century Disney movie of the story). There are many complicated diversions en route, and a surprise at the end.
A huge undertaking — almost equal in its demands to those met by Eddie Woolrich, Guildbury’s director of this adaptation for the theatre by American playwright Laura Eason. Wisely following her advice on staging such a long and eventful journey, he creates London, Paris, Brindisi, Bombay, Hongkong, San Francisco and the boats and trains (and an elephant) between them in true theatrical style. They’re conjured up using the simplest of props, the most assured acting and the wittiest stage-management.
The two main characters are brilliantly brought to life by Richard Copperwaite as Phileas Fogg and Joe Hall as Passepartout. Written by a Frenchman, Phileas Fogg is a parody of British 19th colonialism: pedantic, stiff, humourless, arrogant, prejudiced and blinkered to all but his goal to succeed — but not totally immune to modifing his outlook through encounters with the world outside Britain. Copperwaite carries this role off with tremendous commitment, contrasting perfectly with Joe Hall’s Passepartout, who is the archetypal opposite, always open to new encounters and experiences, and easily distracted! Joe’s performance as a victim of a Chinese drug den is priceless, as are his rash interventions when his master is threatened, and his gormless bewilderment in other tight spots.
Jonathan Arundel as the bungling Scotland Yard detective following Fogg is a great parody of the English — always sportingly admitting ‘I deserved that’ when he’s knocked down by Passepartout! — and Amie Felton as Mrs Aouda the Indian widow whom they rescue in Bombay is suitably mild-mannered.
The ensemble company give tireless support to the central characters, as gentlemen, citizens of the various cities they visit, sailors, ruffians and bureaucrats and consuls.
There are wonderful moments of comedy and wit. The elephant ride stands out for me, as does the ‘human pyramid’ that Passepartout demonstrates as a circus performer. The fight scenes are great, and Fogg becoming ‘man of action’ in a storm at sea is memorably funny. I loved a brief witty reference to the red hot-air balloon of the Disney film, too.
In one of the hottest July weeks of this century, we picnicked, laughed and thoroughly enjoyed this immersion in true theatre. There may be some tickets left — why not grab some of them and journey to Merrist Wood grounds this week to join in the fun?
‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ — Guildford Shakespeare Company
Rack’s Close, Guildford, 16th June – 2nd July 2022
A magical feast of fun and laughter — GSC does it again.
‘If you go down to the woods today…’ you won’t find bears as in A A Milne’s song, but you will find magic all this month. Rack’s Close, Guildford’s best-kept-secret forest, is the venue for the GSC’s latest production. On an idyllic Midsummer’s Day eve we were absolutely enchanted by this scintillating ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’, directed by Abigail Anderson.
Anderson writes that she aims to make the story ‘clear and exciting’, and she succeeds superlatively. I’ve seen many productions of the ‘Dream’, but never been engaged so fully from the outset with the personalities and motivations of the characters in this fast-moving, farcical and intricate plot. In Scene I the exposition of the four young lovers’ relationships and problems is achieved speedily and dramatically, and Helena (Annabelle Terry) makes her stormy entrance, foreshadowing even more furiously feisty behaviour when the four become hopelessly entangled under the influence of the magic drugs of the spirits of Nature in the forest beyond Athenian civilisation.
This is followed up immediately by the introduction of the Mechanicals, who provide Shakespeare’s satire on literary romantic love and the world of play-writing and production —'Pyramus and Thisbe’ — and the iconic character of Bottom the weaver (Rosalind Blessed.) We in the audience loved being cast as potential actors and cheered with the rest when Snug (Dewi Mutiara Sarginson) sat next to us and was chosen to play ‘Lion’ (later in the play the Lion was quite a star!)
The main theme is the madness (and comedy) that romantic love can lead to when human society’s expectations are overturned by natural impulses (personified by the fairy court’s interference with human relationships in the forest on the magic night of Midsummer.) In Anderson’s production this modern interpretation of the reality of magic and the supernatural world is beautifully balanced with the beliefs of the 16th Century in magic, spells and sprites.
The whole cast is brilliant: I’d single out for special mention the outrageously funny Bottom played with huge gusto by Rosalind Blessed; Annabelle Terry, the dangerously scorned Helena (and the hilariously assertive Wall); and Daniel Kriler, a mischievous Puck who ‘puts a girdle round about the Earth’ using some intriguing modes of transport.
‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ is always a comic highlight, and is so in this production, but it takes a fresh approach to bring to the climactic fight among the four young lovers the kind of knockabout comedy we saw in Rack’s Close this evening —they literally ‘tear strips off one another’!
Matt Eaton’s inventive soundscapes included invisible munchkin fairies (perhaps unfairly making Shakespeare’s incantations rather hard to follow) and a very convincing dawn chorus.