"The Magic of Steam Punk"
by Avril Silk on 12/12/16

‘Around the World in 80 Days’ at Taunton’s Brewhouse Theatre is a delight. It looks wonderful. Cleo Pettit’s bold, imaginative steam punk set and costume designs are a perfect fit for Jules Verne’s Victorian story of travel and adventure. Congratulations to the Production Team – Producer Vanessa Lefrancois, Director Tim Claydon, Seamstress Krissie Oldroyd, Lighting Designer Chris Alexander, Sound Designer Isaac Cowland and Musical Director Lisa Tustian. I particularly enjoyed the use of ‘The Water is Wide’ as a gentle, recurring thread, as well as the excellent, full-on musical numbers. A huge ‘Well done!’ for evoking different modes of transports and a host of contrasting countries with such panache.

The principals clearly relished their roles and communicated their enthusiasm to the audience. Ross Barnes managed Phileas Fogg’s transformation from timetable-obsessed, uptight prig to fully functioning human being with subtlety, intelligence and warmth. His splendidly inept valet, Passepartout, was played by Tom Babbage with excellent comic timing. As someone who has a deep resistance to comedy rooted in winsome incompetence (Frank Spencer! Argh!) I was glad that Tom had a lightness of touch and sense of irony that rescued the lines from sentimentality.

Samantha Harper’s Princess Auoda gladdened my feminist heart with her stunning combination of beauty and intelligence as well as some sensational singing. Her emotional range while she waited for her beloved to learn how to love was impressive. The same can be said of Karen Davies as Miss Fotherington, whose tender song about her errant swain brought tears to my eyes. She maintained optimism and dignity despite being robbed and abandoned by a suitor who was, frankly, an utter cad. Which brings me neatly to the villain of the piece, Derek Frood’s Captain Fix. Oh, how Derek relished the part! His attempts to sabotage the travel plans of Phileas Fogg and Passepartout were marvellously Machiavellian. He kept turning up all over the place, mingling in with the crowd scenes in ways that made me laugh out loud. His glorious ‘Bang, Bang’ song could hardly be less politically correct. Hooray! However, a perfect opportunity for audience participation was lost, as a theatre full of people singing along would be enormous fun – a phrase which applies throughout Phil Willmott’s witty script and Annemarie Lewis Thomas’s excellent score.

The intriguingly credited Male and Female Swings, Samuel Clifford and Nikkola Burnhope, were absolute troupers, covering a wide range of parts with wit and exuberance. Samuel’s gently unravelling MC and polygamous farmer were terrific, and Nikkola was born to play goodtime girls like Katie O’Flathery and Tammy Lou.

The Community Cast undoubtedly loved taking part in this show and will remember the experience all their lives, I hope. Their discipline and enthusiasm shone throughout.

Any reservations, I ask myself? Just a few. The pace of the first half seemed patchy at times – sometimes dragging a little, then rushing. The galaxy of puppets representing different countries passed in a flash – I wanted to see each puppet a little more clearly for a little longer – and always in front of the screen! Audibility was a problem for some members of the Community Cast and that occasionally made the pace drop. There wasn’t enough audience participation, in my view. Take the risk! Children particularly will do anything for characters as compelling as Passepartout and Captain Fix. If these issues can be resolved, and I am sure they can, the Brewhouse will have given Somerset a memorable and vivid tour de force.

And Eugene was just plain wonderful! A trumpeting triumph.

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