"It's that kind of show, people!" exclaims a twenty-something actor, as he clambers over the front row of seats and disappears into the crowd. And yes, Around The World In 80 Days is exactly that kind of show: fun-loving, adventurous, self-mocking and intelligent – a student production, in all the right ways. It's also slick, energetic, and impeccably performed. All in all, it's an antidote to cynicism, and a reminder of what's best about the Fringe.
This sometimes-irreverent adaptation of Jules Verne's classic tale sees the action staged in front of a giant clock – a constant reminder of the race against time facing central character Phileas Fogg. The sizeable cast from Oxford University dip into and out of roles, while also serving as narrators and, sometimes, human props. It's all cheerfully low-budget, but beautifully done; the pièce de résistance is an elephant, with sink plungers for legs and a trunk made of old LPs. Watch out as well for the sleigh ride, which elegantly captures a breakneck dash across ice using little more than the actors' own bodies.
The whole thing's delivered with a knowing wink, and plenty of direct conversation with the audience. Strong, wilfully-overblown characters supply a constant stream of humour: the very French manservant (played by a woman) often steals the scene, but my personal favourite among them was the eye-rolling, put-upon police inspector. It's worth keeping an eye on the background too, since the actors often respond out-of-character to the sequence of events, lending the whole piece an extra sense of energy and shared, easy-going fun.
But the foppish, measured character of Fogg himself gets a little lost among all these shenanigans – and that's a shame, because it's Fogg who carries the play's deeper theme, of "defence of logic" in a shambolic and often unpredictable world. There's just one truly thoughtful scene – when Fogg, detained in Liverpool, fears his dreams are lost – but it revealed a capacity for touching poignancy, which could have lent an extra dimension to the play. A slight shift of balance, and a few more moments of peace amidst the hijinks, could transform this from an excellent production into a truly outstanding one.
One word of warning: the show is family-friendly but the humour is sophisticated, and the kids in front of me in the audience seemed a little underwhelmed. For older children or fun-loving grown-ups, though, it's hard to imagine a more uplifting or energising treat for a Fringe afternoon. Don't be put off by that daunting advertised running-time: on the day I saw it, it actually clocked in at a trimmer 90 minutes… and even then, I felt nothing but sorrow that the entertainment had to end.