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Gulliver’s Travels at the Unicorn Theatre | Review

Building on one of English literature’s most brilliant works – the genius that is Jonathan Swift’s 18th-century satire about war, empire and tribalism – Lulu Raczka’s Gulliver’s Travels brings a whole new kitbag of clever to the party. Whilst undeniably entertaining and impressive, the question is: did she need to add so many bells and whistles and a secondary plot device to its telling?

Jacoba Williams, Leah Brotherhead, Sam Swann. Gulliver's Travels at Unicorn Theatre. Photo Marc Brenner.
Jacoba Williams, Leah Brotherhead, Sam Swann. Gulliver’s Travels at Unicorn Theatre. Photo Marc Brenner.

With a strong start, Raczka’s work, directed by Jaz Woodcock-Stewart, sets up a world in which our hero, Gulliver (Leah Brotherhead), is a teenage girl in a family with an ill mother and chores she wants to avoid. The epic journey, therefore, comes to life from the most mundane of existences. We are quickly away into play – with cameras and projections moved to create scale as a child would direct their toys. The stagecraft is impressive and skilled – requiring double direction of real-life characters and the effect of them shrunk or enlarged on screens for scale. It’s a wow moment for the kids in the audience and the transition to high seas and a crash landing amongst the diminutive Lilliputians offers crowd-pleasing spectacle in its own right. With fourth-wall-breaking energy, it feels a bit like an enthusiastic optics lesson – in a good way.

Moving along at pace, the conflicts of being a giant amongst the Lilliputians are quickly revealed and, in the first 30 minutes of the production, Raczka and Woodcock-Stewart locate Swift’s bite with a deft touch for young audiences. The absurdity of going to war over how one eats an egg lands with the sharp punch of the original text – in a way that modern youngsters quickly understand. The conflict of Gulliver’s longing to return home and her struggle to justify it, even if it means using her size to sink the boats of innocents in a war to which she is not party, is well illuminated. The ensemble (Mae Munuo, Sam Swann and Jacoba Williams) multi-rolling across the worlds and perspectives do a good job in dramatizing these points both in Lilliput and on the Floating Island.

However, despite being billed as a 90-minute one-act play, the production ran nearly 30-minutes over and lost focus after a strong start with the Lilliputians and a good transition to Brobdingnag. Swift’s novel is unapologetically an epic tale. Therefore, if aimed at an audience aged 7-12, it would have served the entertainment and edification values better to have picked one or two key stories and locations and stuck to them rather than attempt to visit so many worlds. After the 90-minute mark, there seems a sort of cramming in of more plot elements and design features that just don’t have time to make a point and unfortunately detract from the stronger starting scenes which are already well landed. As a denouement, we find ourselves returned, deus ex machina style, to the soapy world of Gulliver’s modern everyday. I am not certain it was necessary to draw a straight line to a moral about ‘there’s no place like home’ when the work itself has deeper, dystopian and already exciting themes that are plenty meaty for key-stage-two children. Nonetheless, there is enough fidelity to Swift’s work to make it a worthwhile exploration – along with gratifying stagecraft that will inspire awe. If its creatives trimmed the text and effects slightly, this strong and promising show would actually pack more punch. I can’t help but wonder if recovery funds actually got in the way of a strong and salient creative idea. I daresay, Gulliver’s Travels almost needs a little less budget to achieve its full potential.

3 Star Review

Review by Mary Beeer

Lemuel Gulliver desperately wants to escape her home life. So she escapes to a world of strange islands and even stranger creatures – from the tiny inhabitants of Lilliput, to the giants of Brobdingnag, and the mysterious and wise Houyhnhnms – and embarks on an epic adventure of survival, unexpected friendship and self-discovery.

Weston Theatre
A Unicorn Production
Inspired by the book by Jonathan Swift
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 CrouchVideo Design by Jack Phelan – Video Associate Jack Baxter
Assistant Director Alice Wordsworth
Sunday 6 March – Saturday 16 April 2022
Unicorn Theatre 147 Tooley Street, London SE1 2HZ

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  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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