Mary Woodward at the Festivals

Gulliver, Big Belly, Underbelly, Cowgate, Venue 61, Review

***** (5 stars)

“quite simply, outstanding”

A man sits alone on a beach, staring into the distance.  The sea thunders around him: there’s a map, a palm tree, a ship’s mast with rigging and some ragged sails.  He starts to tell us his story – and what a story it is! 

For those of you who don’t know the company’s work, Box Tale Soup specialise in bringing great novels to life, using only the author’s words.  They combine human actors with marvellously-constructed puppets and scenery [this year made only from recycled and ‘found’ materials].  They engage their audience right from the start, drawing us in to the action and making us impatient to know ‘what happens next?’  

We’ve had to wait quite some time for this new production from Box Tale Soup – it would have been seen sooner, but a Little Something got in the way….   It was, of course, well worth the wait.  I find myself groping for superlatives every time I try to describe this company’s work, and every time words fail me – they are, quite simply, outstanding, creative, imaginative, amusing, entertaining, thought-provoking, challenging, and extraordinarily talented…

I’ve never read Gulliver’s Travels or, to give it its full title Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships.  I do have some idea of what it’s about, not least through reading T.E. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose, in which some Liliputians play a crucial part.  We all, I’m sure, know that Gulliver on his travels meets some very small people and some giants; some of us may know that he meets a horse-like race, and that’s probably as far as it goes.  

Gulliver is a three-hander in which Noel Byrne and Antonia Christophers are joined by Adam Boyle and bring to life an astonishing number of amazing characters.  I’m simply blown away by the inventive ways by which they represent the differences of size of the peoples Gulliver encounters and the strange lands in which they live.  My favourite characters have to be the Houyhnhnms, whose civilisation has so much to teach us, in strong contrast to the Yahoos, whose behaviour so closely mirrors that of many people in our own so-called civilisation.  I also love both the Houyhnhnms’ and the Yahoos’ design and execution.

The various episodes in the narrative are linked by wonderful sea shanties, yet another demonstration of Box Tale Soup’s phenomenal range of talents: Noel wrote the words, and Antonia composed the melodies.  An excellent recorded sound track underpins the action, which must require great skill in ensuring words and actions fit with it.  The costumes are simple, with the company’s trademark fabric printed with words from the book’s text, while the set is both simple and fantastically complex, as is the elaborate choreography with which props are joined together, taken apart and moved around to produce an ever-changing kaleidoscope of settings for the action.

Jonathan Swift’s complex satirical tale invites us to consider the meaning of ‘civilisation’, and whether what we deem to be civilised behaviour is really so: when viewed with different eyes, is it actually the folly of barbarians determined to dominate and destroy everything that gets in their way?  Box Tale Soup present this subtly, wittily and entertainingly, giving us much food for thought.

The performance I attended was virtually sold out, and the applause loud and prolonged.  I feel sure that tickets for Gulliver will become increasingly hard to come by as the Fringe progresses: hurry up and get yours!

Gulliver, Big Belly, Underbelly, Cowgate, Venue 61, for tickets go to: Gulliver | Theatre | Edinburgh Festival Fringe (edfringe.com)

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