Gulliver's Travels at the Unicorn Theatre – review
The production continues at the east London venue until 16 April
In the popular imagination, the titular hero of Jonathan Swift's great satirical novel has become synonymous with being a giant. But, as this innovative new adaptation reminds us, there's far more to him, or her, as imagined here, than mere size.
Creating a framing device that sees Lemuel Gulliver recast as a girl dreaming of escape from her domestic chores and ailing mum, writer Lulu Raczka portrays the famous traveller as someone in need not so much of adventure as distraction. Thus, the whole saga becomes a form of epic procrastination.
Jaz Woodcock-Stewart's Brechtian staging, expansively designed by Rosanna Vize, makes clever use of a range of devices, particularly video cameras and tabletop puppetry. When she arrives in Lilliput, Gulliver (Mae Munuo) is projected onto the vast back wall, against which the Lilliputians seem suitably tiny. When she is tied up and hauled through the town, it's on a trolley populated by miniature models. This is a box of tricks that both delights the young audience and effectively captures the dreamlike quality of the worlds Gulliver encounters.
Raczka, who worked with the company to devise the script (the production has been delayed by two years due to the pandemic), inserts plenty of contemporary touches and knowing nods. In one particularly enjoyable exchange the queen of Brobdingnag, the land of giants, questions Gulliver on the sense of living in London, where parents forego time with their children to work in dull grey buildings. It does however lose its way slightly towards the latter stages. The floating island of Laputa, where great minds are paralysed by practical inability, lacks the coherence of the rest of the narrative. It all starts to feel slightly baggy, a profusion of ideas that could have been further distilled.
But there is lots to enjoy on the journey, not least the soul-infused compositions of Ben and Max Ringham, and the video design of Jack Phelan (not enough plays have an opening title sequence). The ensemble – completed by Leah Brotherhead, Sam Swann and Jacoba Williams – are bursting with comic energy and showcase an impressive range of dance and movement skills. It was also admirable how well they dealt with the regular interjections from the stalls; even at one stage a bit of impromptu "it's behind you".
This is a welcome opportunity to introduce children (the age recommendation is 7 plus) to a literary classic. I was particularly heartened by a conversation with my daughter (8) on the way home about the significance of the Lilliputians' battle over whether eggs should be cracked at the top end or the bottom. "You shouldn't fight over such silly things," she opined. Quite.