Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels back in 1726, but there’s nothing old-fashioned in Lulu Raczka’s high energy modern adaptation. From the very start this production is buzzing, as the dynamic cast dance around the stage, using tiny cameras to project themselves onto an enormous blank wall. A resonating soundtrack shakes the room, courtesy of sound designer Owen Crouch and music from Ben and Max Ringham. This is top of the range stuff! With funky dance moves and techno visuals, the performance speaks the language of tech savvy youth, as the cameras creatively put the characters in new and unlikely spaces: there’s nothing mundane about this show. And that’s what our main character Grace (Mae Munuo) is aiming at: an escape from her real world, with all its annoyances and stupid jobs to do.
Grace and her friends, multi-roled with exceptional skill by Leah Brotherhead, Sam Swann and Jacabo Williams re-enact the story using miniature toy people, optical illusion, projection and many, many devices, to play with scale and devise new worlds. And Swift’s 18th century satire is totally solid in their narrative. They visit Lilliput, where Grace (as Gulliver) is baffled by a war with no start and no end, and senseless prejudice against foreigners: all too relevant to our current time. She experiences the bigotry of Little Endians against Big Endians, just because they eat eggs differently. Gulliver is bought and kept as a pet, then challenged by the Big Thinking in Laputa, where nothing helpful gets done by those at the top, whilst the little people suffer. Sounds familiar?
The highly innovative design by Rosanna Vize is simple yet imaginative, exploiting every dimensional plane to take Grace far away from home. And there are so many styles of videography in use. It’s almost documentary in places, then ridiculous in others, providing numerous opportunities for laughter. There’s hints of Alice in Wonderland when our hero sticks her head in a little house. An unexpected cameo from Queen Elizabeth I, played by the hilarious Brotherhead, is an absolute highlight, as is Williams’ maniacal emperor, and Swann’s magic moment attempting to turn poo back into food… (the audience could hardly contain themselves at that point}. Yet the arrival of the sentient horses, the Houyhnhnms, introduces an elegantly operatic mode, made stunningly epic by enormous doors opening to allow light to spill through, surreal costuming and movement. Actions throughout are often sharply choreographed, and I was conscious of the precision timing required in every scene as actors, objects and lights were set in just the right place for the tech to work.
Some things didn’t quite gel on the night. It took a while to adjust between looking at an actor in one place and their projection in another, so when the sync between sound and projection was slightly out it was rather distracting. Then the end, when Grace returns to her sick mum, lacked a little resolution: despite returning to face her reality, the mum is left unseen, so it felt less than concrete. Additionally, its 90 minutes without interval might benefit from shaving back a bit for the younger end of the 7+ audience range.
That being said, this is surely one of the most extraordinary, ambitious performances on the London stage at the moment, which will send the kids home inspired to make similar projects. It’s a sad fact that theatre for younger audiences is often dismissed in the industry: The Stage doesn’t even bother to have a Family tab on their website. So this high energy, innovative and massively creative production from the Unicorn Theatre totally counters that, screaming ‘watch me go!’ Go watch!
Written by Lulu Raczka
Directed by Jaz Woodcock-Stewart
Designed by Rosanna Vize
Lighting Design by Jess Bernberg and Joshua Gadsby
Music Composed by Ben and Max Ringham
Sound Design by Owen Crouch
Video Design by Jack Phelan
Gulliver’s Travels plays at The Unicorn Theatre until 26 April. Further information and bookings via the below link.