This radical reimagining of Jonathan Swift’s 18th-century tale of a shipwrecked surgeon is less a biting social satire and more a journey into imagination and fantasy as a refuge from the real world.
Writer Lulu Raczka revives Lemuel Gulliver as a student whose mother is seriously ill, and who decides to be “someone else” to escape her pain through make-believe. So she imaginatively enacts the voyages that comprise Swift’s four-part book from the confines of her bedroom.
Directed by Jaz Woodcock-Stewart, there is a lovely, scrappy form of storytelling here as scenes are quickly created and dismantled before our eyes, often with bewitching use ofvideo and projections. An enormous back screen resembles a white sheet pinned up against a nursery wall. The video design by Jack Phelan is thrilling, and perspectives are changed with the use of cameras, model figures, a doll’s house for the Lilliputians and clever camera angles for the giants in Brobdingnag, plus a host of other tricks on Rosanna Vize’s ingenious set.
A water-filled tank becomes a sloshing ocean storm for Gulliver’s first shipwreck and the special effects become more sophisticated yet never lose their charming DIY quality. The technical games occasionally distract from the story’s emotional grip but at other times it all comes together. Both the script and performances are full of delightful humour.
The musical composition by Ben and Max Ringham, and sound design by Owen Crouch, combine with the projection and movement so magnificently that the show feels most energised in these moments. But the spoken drama feels like an interruption or anticlimax against this spectacle, and the technical inventions distract from the emotional grip of the story, although the script and performance are full of humour.
Its pace flags a little and it ends up feeling drawn out, even at an hour and a half. Too long is spent in Lilliput, too, with the same games played around scale. It becomes more surreal as it leaves Brobdingnag and enters Laputa, whose society appears complicated and opaque, with scenes cutting away quickly so it is not easy to make sense of it all for a younger audience. But this section is darker and pacier, the shadowy, haunted set evocative. There is a brush with the Houyhnhnms (or horses) of Gulliver’s final voyage, though this world is only glimpsed, with no sign of the Yahoos.
Leah Brotherhead, Mae Munuo, Sam Swann and Jacoba Williams form a strong ensemble as joint storytellers and characters. Munuo leads as a lovable Gulliver and has a great singing voice to boot, while the others double up as the motley characters she meets. Gulliver’s musings about life and death when she is in fear of drowning are beautiful for their dark melancholic interiority, and adults might be left wishing for more of this before the tone snaps back to lightness.
But at its high points, it is magnificent – a voyage well worth taking, which could do with a bit of tightening up, but grows with emotional power and punch at the end.