Contributed by Chantelle Harvey
Gulliver’s Travels, a story widely renowned for its many renditions, arrived in the Lyric theatre in Belfast on Thursday night in association with the Youth Music Theatre UK. YMT’s status as a leading musical theatre company is showcased in the commendable effort of each and every one of the young actors throughout the whole production, many of whom are undoubtedly stars of the future.
This adaptation was written by the immensely talented Andrew Doyle (previous works include The World Must be Peopled, and The Second Mr Bailey for BBC Radio 4). The tale of Gulliver would seem like a daunting task for even the most adept stage-writer due to the limited space of the stage and the complex narrative. Doyle however grasps the challenge with both hands however, creating something witty and inventive while keeping the main values of Swift’s original at the heart of the tale. Refreshingly, Doyle chooses not to stick with the typical locations seen in recent adaptations of Gulliver but instead chooses to explore the extraordinary lands of Lilliput, Blefuscu, Laputa, Brobdingnag, Glubbdubrib and the Houyhnhnms; a large task for any production. Throughout each of these settings Doyle contemplates the dark depths of the human condition, most strikingly through his poignant lyrics (“a hundred beating hearts” sings Empress of Blefuscu [Lily Woodhouse], as Gulliver chillingly destroys their land; “Freefalling – the freedom to fall and the freedom to rise” laments Bonaria [Kiera Battersby], who can hardly remember her own name). This harrowing but hopeful tone is infused with satirical energy, fuelled by some incredibly funny characters and brilliant writing that reveals Doyle’s experience as a successful stand-up comedian.
The lyrics owe their power in part to the score, produced by platinum-album musician Duke Special. Duke’s unbelievably catchy songs made the production, the changes in style between locations being particularly enjoyable. The futuristic drum and bass inflection of Laputa for example contrasts sharply with the old-fashioned nature of the classical Brobdingnag. The audience could experience their hearts soaring as Gulliver and Bonaria duetted, before bopping along with the President of Laputa merrily discussing murder. A brilliant soundtrack with top-class lyrics, executed perfectly.
As for the young stars of the show; Mark Woods played Gulliver (fittingly, he hails from Ireland). Woods thoroughly explores this flawed and troubled character with the the distinct quality of a leading man. His performance was rivalled only by Christopher McNeilly, the wonderfully funny and sinister President of Laputa. With his huge heels and large shoulder pads, McNeilly’s wrapped the audience around his little finger as they simultaneously despised and loved him. While the entire company were wholly talented, special mentions have to be made. Mark Mcilhagga (Prichard, Gulliver’s father) closes decades of age in acting a man of fifty with great intensity and presence, and Kiera Battersby (Bonaria) and Emilia Vaes (Peaches) completely own their characters, with Ali Frances (the Necromancer) giving a wonderfully whimsical interpretation of an otherwise frightening character. Both Tessa Southwell and her character, the domineering but level-headed Kloresta, rivalled anyone else on that stage.
The production crew also deserves a hearty round-of-applause. Props and space are used effectively considering what’s available and the lighting effectively emphasises the tone of each scene. The background projection of Wood’s face to portray the vast difference in size between Gulliver and the tiny Lilliputians and the shadow play in Brobdingnag’s are clever additions that
handle the issue of scale very well. I did have some reservations about the permanent structures on the stage, and the projection of Blefuscu being crushed by Gulliver – two minor points in an otherwise flawless production. Well done to the entire team; I can’t wait to see what you do next!