Friday, October 02, 2015

Surreal and memorable - Gulliver at the MAC until 17 October ... unless the Lilliputian's get there first

And now for something completely different …

Running in the MAC until 17 October, Big Telly Theatre Company’s stage adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels is mad cap theatre like nothing you’ll ever have seen before. (It’s like an extended version of the kind of outlandish show OMAC used to stage.)

Weird is definitely the new normal.
“We’ve no idea what he’s been through, and the whole town’s here”

Like all seasoned travellers, every time Lemuel Gulliver (played by the naturally hairy ‘mane man’ Bryan Quinn) comes home he has been changed by his journeys. His wife Mary (Shelly Atkinson who co-wrote the play with director ZoĆ« Seaton), mother Alice (Helen Roche) have been joined by his two adult children – and the audience – to welcome him home.

In a role that he was born to play, Patrick J O Reilly swaps the fishnet tights of Cabaret for the leggings and ankle warmers of Gulliver’s son Johnny who should be dancing as a swan in London but has instead come home to witness his father’s return from his latest escapade.

Betty Gulliver (Nicky Harley) has arrived home too. She’s the most empathetic towards her father, and excuses most of his eccentricities. Both Johnny and Betty throw themselves around the stage with abandon. The sixth member of the cast Brandan Conroy plays Jim, Granny’s bit on the side who is a couple of jockeys short of a full racecard.
“Do you want him to have come back and not changed one little bit?”
This time his most recent equine experience has left Gulliver particularly unsettled and unable to communicate with his family. Through flashbacks, the details of some of his previous adventures are fleshed out as we see him dropping in at home, sometimes with quite a fanfare. The effect of his absence on the family is beautifully illustrated with mundane chores and conversations interrupting his tall tales.
“Gifts of experience … little glimpses into other worlds …”

While Jonathan Swift’s satire has been watered down, the caustic lessons for today’s society from what Gulliver has been subjected to are still present in the surreal script: from the seggterian issue of how you break your hard boiled egg – big-endian or little-endian [terms that Computer Science has happily borrowed] to difficulties dealing with difference and societies that have become “completely wrapped up in their on ideas … don’t even live in families”. Add to that a hilarious conception scene – along with death and resurrection – and the story works on so many levels.

Is Lemuel Gulliver mad, easily deceived or a righteous prophet of Houyhnhnmism and the evangelical cult of redistribution? And are we as depraved as our antagonists?

Diego Pitarch’s set is a simple wooden structure, with a mezzanine level accessed by ladder that acts as Gulliver’s bedroom. I fear that the slim-legged kitchen table won’t survive the full run given the abuse it takes. Sophisticated back projection allows the audience to be transported to other lands when Gulliver relives his exploits as well as providing a view of some hilarious happenings out the window.

Such heavy use of video brings with it the difficulty of synchronising human actions with Tapio Snellman’s beautifully crafted pre-recorded clips. At times the audience are treated to the visual perspective of Gulliver’s youngest daughter Tracey (who is carried around as a doll): over the extended run the timing may improve, but frequently cast members had moved on stage before the action changed up on the screen. It’s not a total distraction, but at on occasion it is more sophisticated than the show requires.
“Why do you want to do the thing that is not?”

The mood in the house changes swings all over the place as the show canters towards its conclusion. Despite sudden moments of brutality, I found myself grinning most of the way through the play, as if anticipating that there’d be lighter moments just around the corner. Several times I suppressed the urge to join in and heckle. The show is billed as suitable for 8 years and over, though with such a high shit-count in one scene 11-13 and over might be a safer guide.

If you head down to the MAC you can catch Gulliver until the 17 October, after which he plans to escape on a tour that takes in UK and Irish cities but sensibly leaves out the flying island of Laputa. Expect a surreal and memorable evening at the theatre. (But be quick, the tickets won’t be there furlong.)

And on Tuesday 6 October there’s a free after show discussion about satire with Newton Emerson, Brian John Spencer and a representative from LAD.

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