8 April 2011
Paul F Cockburn saw the play at Platform, The Bridge, in Glasgow, 31 March, 2011
Edinburgh-based Lung Ha's Theatre Company has a long and successful history providing opportunities for people with learning difficulties to get involved in the performing arts. This isn't just within an isolated niche of disability arts; only last year, a co-production with Grid Iron, Huxley's Lab, won the ensemble production category at the mainstream Critics' Award for Theatre in Scotland.
Many of Lung Ha's previous shows have been developed from cast-based improvisation; however, Artistic Director Maria Oller has this year shifted the company's focus on to existing works, on the grounds that they necessarily make different demands on the company's members, while still powerfully challenging audiences' perceptions of what disabled people can achieve.
Last autumn, Lung Ha's successfully staged an intimate adaptation of two Anton Chekhov short stories; Chekhov Shorts. The play however, involved just four of the company's members on stage. For the annual full company production, Oller's challenge was to find a work which would inspire both her cast and appeal to wider audiences. She turned to one of her own earliest memories of theatre - an adaptation of Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days by the Finnish author Bengt Ahlfors.
The original Ahlfors production was created for a small cast playing multiple roles; this version, although based on a translation by Alan Goodson, was adapted by the playwright Douglas Maxwell in order to anchor the story around four main performers (Stephen Tait as Phileas Fogg, Mark Howie as his servant Passepartout, Douglas Briglman as the pursuing detective Fix and Lindsay King as the Indian Widow Mrs Adoua) while allowing the rest of the company to share the numerous other characters between them.
For the audience, this provides a valuable continuity in what could otherwise potentially unravel into a promenade of dramatically isolated events. That said, the original, percussive score (written and performed live by Pete Vilkhe) provides an excellent aural 'glue', as well as greatly contributing to the atmosphere of individual scenes -- ranging, as they do, from the stifling silence of a Gentleman's Club to a bustling Indian market.
Despite just a small number of performances in Glasgow and Edinburgh, this is a big production in all senses; on numerous occasions, there are almost two dozen people on stage, and while the necessary choreography is a bit loose round the edges, some of the cast are able to contribute here in ways they might not be able to do verbally. The main performances are necessarily broad in scope, given their role in pushing the narrative forward, but Tait in particular successfully portrays the blustering Fogg's own surprise at falling in love.
Most importantly, for the whole to work, the cast are able to produce the piece's final dramatic punch - the revelation that Fogg still has a chance to win his wager, thanks to his crossing the International Date line (he's been travelling 80 days, but just 79 have passed in London). As a result, the show concludes on a joyous note certainly shared by the audience. A sterling effort all round.