Review: Gulliver's Travels...

Andrew Doyle's adaptation of Gulliver's Travels, directed by Des 'Once: The Musical' Kennedy with music by Peter 'Duke Special' Wilson, is a boundlessly expressive song and dance tied to classic literature, a versatile, multi-cultural and multi-colourful showing of local and national talent.

A co-production between Belfast's Lyric Theatre and Youth Music Theatre UK previously staged here in 2015, Gulliver's Travels is back at a now jam-packed Lyric with a brand new cast aged between twelve and twenty-one. And what makes it ring especially true is a stripping back of technique for something more vibrant, choreographic and vocal.

For Doyle and Wilson, director Kennedy and choreographer Jennifer Rooney, it is a slight breaking of waves, a minor diversion from traditionalism towards a work both swift and Swift, faithful to its inspiration but also uniquely their own.

Ejected from a boat in a storm, seemingly rejected by humanity, Lemuel Gulliver (Tomo McSorley, full-blooded and full-hearted) is nevertheless positive that he will "find a home – if there's a home out there for (him)". When he arrives in the land of Lilliput, he is a giant and a monster who few trust.

Muddled harmonies of pronounced passion relay the ecliptic confusion that surely runs through the head of every citizen present - and Gulliver himself. To them, it's about not knowing what to do or think on his arrival. To Gulliver, it's about alienation through loss of location. To both, it's fear of a hanging black cloud overhead which will soon be revealed as the mysterious island of Laputa.

Amidst the Lilliputians, everything is played mostly comically, with emotive splashes. Musically there's some balladry here and jazzy doo wop there. Verbally, there are instances of sharp humour. Both are befitting of Wilson's harmonic idiosyncrasies and Doyle's stand-up background. It's not entirely successful, mind.

The more crass comedy is a little at odds with the outlandish fairytale whimsy, and the projection used to create the effects of large (and later, on Brobdingnag, small) Gulliver, are a bit clumsy. But the latter is endearing as a fault: the songs and movements are powerful enough to override the surface technique, helping us to create the required imagery in our hearts.

Most lively and mystical is Laputa, where the Monty Python influences are traded for something more akin to New Wave and Rocky Horror. If Lilliput fascinates and amuses, then Laputa staggers and terrifies, a fantastical world of hypnotic, robotic movement. When Bonaria (Izzy Mackie, sweet and affecting) tells Gulliver that the President (Jack Leonard, frankly brilliant) intends to wire Gulliver into a system where he will turn out like "the rest", you know she isn't joking.

We feel her connection with Gulliver and understand his need to escape from Laputa's leader, a sadistic control freak who temporarily masquerades as harmlessly flamboyant until his true nature is unleashed.

The President is a bit like Laputa itself - a dark shadow over not just Lilliput but everywhere Gulliver visits, eliciting a background and foreground of fun and fear that's neither too frivolous nor too frightening.
Or is it? I would argue that Glumdalclitch (Niamh Craik)'s tug of war with Thullniblot (Emmie Doyle) over the diminutive is as nightmarish as theatre gets – "He's my friend!" "He's not your friend, he's a pet – and pets can be easily replaced." That, or the sight of a mannequin-like Bonaria.

Both are instances of having your few true bonds robbed from you before they can blossom. And both are explicit instances of how Doyle and Wilson's clear respect and love for the material has transcended into something both liberal and liberating on the stage.
In short? A real Duke Special.

Simon Fallaha

Gulliver's Travels was produced by Youth Music Theatre UK in association with Lyric Theatre Belfast and ran at the Lyric Theatre from 28 – 30 July.

Photo By Chris Hill Photography

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