Review: Around the World in 72 Days at Little LTF ***1/2

In the BBC’s recent adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, the inept Phileas Fogg and his manservant Passpartout were joined on their adventure by a plucky and resourceful female reporter.

Fact often informs fiction, and while absent from Verne’s original tale, the Victorian adventurer actually existed in real life in the form of New York World investigative journalist Nellie Bly.

Bly, the pen name of Elizabeth Jane Cochran, took Verne’s classic as a template and in November 1889 she set out - at 36-hours’ notice - to travel around the world….in less than 80 days.

Her adventures are recalled in this engaging one-woman show by recent graduate actor Rebekah McLoughlin, informed by Bly’s own books and journals and performed with the aid of a handful of props and a recorded soundscape of trains, boats and voiced characters.

McLoughlin’s Bly is determined, prickly and often quite rude – although in fairness while she meets with great kindness on her odyssey, she also encounters a succession of pompous, patrician or downright creepy people (I say people, in honesty it’s practically all men) who are enough to try the patience of a saint let alone a go-getting, self-starting ‘stunt girl’ from Pittsburgh.

Bly’s journey encompasses stops in England, France – where she meets Verne himself, a foggy Italy, Egypt, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Hong Kong and Japan before crossing the Pacific to California and a final dash across the US.

McLoughlin has crafted an engaging monologue for the feisty Nellie as we follow her progress from Kent countryside to southern Italian port to Suez Canal, then on through a monsoon-struck South China Sea, kicking her heels waiting for a ship in Yokohama and the long eastward voyage across the Pacific on the White Star Line’s Oceanic.

Along the way she gambles in Port Said, fends off suicidal admirers, is threatened with arrest in Ceylon and spends Christmas lunch in China’s Temple of the Dead. Oh, and she acquires a monkey.

On Christmas Eve she discovers she’s in a race with another female adventurer, Elizabeth Bisland, who was packed off from New York on the same day by Cosmopolitan magazine to do the trip, just in the opposite direction.

Will Bly arrive back in New York on time? And will she beat rival Bisland? We learn the answer to the first question from McLoughlin’s Nellie, if not the second. It’s a loose thread in the narrative, but one which could be easily rectified.

For the record, Bisland – who later became editor of Cosmo – arrived home four days later than Bly after someone (either erroneously or deliberately) advised her she had missed her connection at Southampton and she had to make a dash to Queenstown for Cunard’s slow transatlantic steamer SS Bothnia instead.

Both women deserve their daring journeys to be more widely recognised, so it’s great that in this centenary year of Bly’s death McLoughlin has brought her achievement at least to the stage.

Around the World in 72 Days: The Story of Nellie Bly (to give it its full title) is thoughtfully crafted within the structure of Bly’s real-life cyclical adventure, and while it needs a little more polishing here and there it certainly shows great potential.

Photo by David Munn