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Gulliver’s Travels – Octagon Theatre, Bolton

Writer: Jonathan Swift

Adapters: Satinder Chohan & Mike Kenny

Directors: Elizabeth Newman & Ben Occhipinti

Reviewer: Jay Nuttall

There are big things happening in Queen’s Park in Bolton over the next couple of weeks. The Octagon Theatre’s outdoor, promenade production of Gulliver’s Travels lands ashore with lots of silliness, a vast community chorus and one giant puppet!

The story of Gulliver and the land of Lilliput doesn’t need a lot of introduction. Engrained in most people’s psyche is the image of a (seemingly giant) human man tied down by the tiny Lilliputian inhabitants. But beyond that, many would be hard pushed to further the narrative. Octagon directors Elizabeth Newman and Ben Occhipinti have taken on the gigantic challenge of presenting Jonathan Swift’s complex and political novel of 1726 in a little less than two hours.

Adapters Mike Kenny and Satinder Chohan have taken enormous artistic license with their script in order to get this story on its giant foot. Father and explorer Lemuel Gulliver (Michael Peavoy) is about to once again go off on a voyage of adventure when he is persuaded by his seven-year-old daughter Betty (Anne O’Riordan) to take her with him. Her child size bed transforms into a boat and we, their explorer entourage, are taken through gigantic wicker gates and on an adventure. But quickly shipwrecked on a strange island this quickly turns into a story about the invasion of the ‘other’ from another land.

Aided by a vast young company, events take a turn for the surreal as they emerge like Munchkins or Oompa Loompas as the Lilliputians. In a turn of genius by the costume department, they are dressed in colourful ponchos and rainbow umbrella hats – perfect for the unpredictable usual British summer weather. If this isn’t strange enough Marc Small’s leader of the gang and Alexander Bean’s Emperor arrive clad in bright gold tracksuits before we travel further on into the park to the Emperor’s palace. Eggs puns come runny and fast as eggs, it seems, have an eggstraordinary importance on the isle of Lilliput … and no yoke.

Queens Park is a fantastic setting for a promenade summer theatrical production – especially with an already built amphitheater used for the last scene in this production. Forced out of their theatre due to refurbishment it is a wonder why they don’t use the park on an annual basis, like The Dukes Theatre in Lancaster do with Williamson Park. Perhaps it may do so in the future after this experiment.

With such high production values, superb organisation and a beautiful Gulliver puppet (made by Handmade Parade in Hebden Bridge) it seems a shame that they limited themselves to a cast of only four professional actors. An artistic choice had obviously been made to include as much of a community cast as possible, which is to be applauded, but the cast would have benefitted from being a little more fleshed out. And the same criticism can be applied to the adaptation. It is a featto chop down a novel dealing with many issues into a promenade park show, but it feels like Kenny and Chohan actually slims it down too much. The storytelling is minimal bordering on obsolete. Visually, especially at the end, it looked spectacular, but understanding quite how we had got to there didn’t seem to matter. And with a

The storytelling is minimal bordering on obsolete. Visually, especially at the end, it looks spectacular, but understanding quite how we had got to there doesn’t seem to matter. And with a second-half running time of about twenty-five minutes over two short scenes, one may feel a little short-changed from this over-sized story.

This, one hopes, is the first park show the Octagon may produce, in the tradition of many other rep theatres over the summer. As a spectacle, it can not be faltered. As a satisfying piece of theatre with good storytelling, it needs to think bigger.

Runs until 27 August 2018 |  Image: Bolton Discovery Photography

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The North West team is under the editorship of John Roberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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