This delightful stage version of Around the World in 80 Days doesn’t just tell Jules Verne’s story published in 1872 – it honours the American journalist Nellie Bly, who completed the journey in real life in 72 days in 1890 – but has since been forgotten.
Dressed in a replica of Nellie’s black and white gingham coat – Nellie’s one outfit for the whole trip, the superb Katriona Brown describes Nellie’s brave adventure as the story of Verne’s hero Phileas Fogg unfolds. The two tales are artfully woven together.
Five highly accomplished actors play multiple roles in this athletic production full of colour, fun, gymnastics, and clownery. They all have great comic timing.
As Fogg travels the globe, his imagined experiences are compared with Nellie’s real ones. Alex Phelps plays Fogg as the archetypal, stoical, stiff upper lip Englishman who as one of the characters says: “Goes round the world taking England with him.”
The several characters played deftly by Genevieve Sabherwal include the Indian princess Aouda, rescued from committing suttee at her husband’s funeral – though she points out to the audience that in fact the practice of widows throwing themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre was illegal and rarely performed. It suited the British Empire, she says, to promote the idea that the Indian nation needed moral guidance.
Wilson Benedito, literally stands on his head as Passepartout, Fogg’s loyal manservant – here also gifted with circus skills.
And Eddie Mann got roars from the audience as Detective Fix. There were delighted rounds of applause at several set pieces in the show, which involved some charming clowning. The three children sitting in front of me were laughing throughout.
A pioneer of investigative reporting, it was Nellie Bly’s idea to do the journey for real for her newspaper The World. Her editors said it could only be done by a man.
“Well start the man,” said Nellie, “and I’ll start the same day for another newspaper and beat him.” She travelled 21,740 miles in the same outfit, carrying only a Gladstone bag. Among other things the bag contained pens, pencils, and copy paper “several complete changes of underwear” pins, needles and threat, a small flask and drinking cup and a jar of cold cream.
She began her career after she wrote a letter to the Pittsburgh Despatch lambasting an article claiming that women had no place in the workplace.
The editor was so impressed that he hired her. During the First World War, she was the first woman to report from the Eastern Front. Her reports were published in The New York Evening Journal under the title: Nellie Bly on the Firing Line.
She also pretended to be mentally ill to investigate conditions inside a New York insane asylum.
Her shocking accounts led to reforms.
This excellently performed, lively and colourful show with a vibrant set by Sara Perks, directed (and adapted from Verne’s book) by Juliet Forster, is a tribute to Verne, to Bly and to life so gloriously improving on art.
Around the World in 80 Days is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, July 1. Shows at 7pm with 2pm matinees on Thursday and Saturday.
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