Around the World is not by the Orson Welles we know - or, at least believe, we know. It is far more Road to Morocco than Citizen Kane.
Welles collaborated on this exuberant musical adaptation of Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days with Cole Porter in the mid-forties but, in spite of the pair's combined talent and star power, the show was a monumental flop and ran for only 75 performances on Broadway before being forced to close, suffering losses of around $300 000.
Ian Marshall Fisher has painstakingly reconstructed the musical for a series of script-in-hand staged readings, with the aim of raising enough money to return the show to its Broadway home.
You approach the play in the same spirit of expectation as an archaeologist at a dig –uncertain of whether you will find treasure or a midden but safe in the knowledge that whatever you unearth it is bound to be interesting.
And Around the World is by no means a midden - There are plenty of small pieces of gold. The chief among them being "Missus Ayouda", an irreverent jazz-hands number about the said lady's imminent immolation. However neither is it the treasure horde of Porter and Welles' more enduring works.
For the most part, Around the World is a gleefully unapologetic romp through the most outrageous of cultural stereotypes – there is not an Arab who cannot be bribed, a Chinaman without an opium pipe, or a Native American who isn't out for a human sacrifice. The play is surprisingly lacking in the sort of satiric bite one might expect from Orson Welles; Phileas's unerring belief in the innate decency of the British and the desirability of Empire are more often endorsed than they are mocked.
Performances are uniformly excellent – David Firth, admirably upright as Phileas Fogg; young actor Rob Eyles, supremely chameleon in his numerous roles; and Rebekah Hinds, splendidly spirited a fiery Irish colleen. The minimalist staging is made a positive asset – could watching the dogged Inspector Fix put on an actual disguise have been as funny as watching his extravagant contortions as he dons an imaginary one?
I can, if honest, see why the 1946 version flopped. The plot is by nature repetitive and episodic, a more lavish stage version, complete with magic, circus acts, and lantern slideshows, might well have felt at least 80 days long. This bare-bones production, on the other hand, does not and it makes for a delightful journey.
3, 9 and 10 November, Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells and 6-12 December, The Mint Theatre, New York