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Published on October 7th, 2015 | by Simon Fallaha

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Gulliver @ The Mac, Belfast

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What would happen if the legendary Lemuel Gulliver was taken out of his context and setting, fathered a dysfunctional family, and acted as the voices of both sanity and insanity?

One knows not what Jonathan Swift would make of this baffling concept, but it is right at home with the ideals of Northern Ireland’s Big Telly Theatre Company, who have become renowned among their fanbase for plucking, bending and breaking every thread in the traditionally theatrical narrative in a uniquely intelligent and idiosyncratic manner. Gulliver is no different, mixing straight pantomime, historical literature, pop culture references, light satire and even science fiction (among other things) into a rather otherworldly confection.

A co-production with Belfast’s MAC directed by Zoe Seaton and penned by Seaton and Shelley Atkinson, Gulliver may actually be as structured as one can expect a usually haphazard Big Telly play to be.

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Everything that happens is presented in three time zones: before, during and after Gulliver’s famous Travels. The audience first encounters the cast already in character before the play even begins, with Gulliver’s wife Mary (Atkinson) and mother, known as Granny (Helen Roche) encouraging everyone to blow up balloons and sign a card to mark the father’s return to the family home. Except Gulliver (a large, bearded Bryan Quinn) resembles a caveman and his grunting and galloping mannerisms mirror a horse. Not exactly what Granny, Mary, daughter Betty (Nicky Harley) and son Johnny (Patrick J O’Reilly) wanted to see.

What to do, then? Call in a horse groom (Brendan Conroy) whose “help” predictably exacerbates the problem instead of solving it. But as with all Big Telly productions, it’s not what happens but how it happens that enraptures, excites and entertains. The stage is now set for a lot of laughs and a handful of shocks on the way to the finish line, with a significant amount of multiple-character playing and endless expressionism from a superb cast.

The line between normal and weird in Big Telly’s world is such that it’s hard to tell which is which, but Gulliver is so much better for it. How else can a sudden shift to Lilliput’s “Man Mountain Crisis Meeting” about Gulliver’s problematic presence delight rather than detract? Similarly, when Gulliver is viewed as a tiny plaything in the Brobdingnag Women’s Institute, and when it is explained how his youngest daughter Tracy ended up silver-skinned with a camera in her eye, both scenes ring entirely true to tone. When Gulliver’s family receive a giant thong from the institute, the reactions are as uproarious as they are unsettling.

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But the play’s skill at both differentiating and depicting pleasure and pain elevate it to a whole new level. When one sees how playful and generous Gulliver could be before leaving, it is hard not to feel regret at his future state of mind and how it has affected everyone else. This only worsens when he starts spouting philosophy “from the horse’s mouth”. (Don’t question it, just go with it.) Yet while his journey may have disrupted his family’s individual lives, it has also forced them to think more for one another rather than themselves. This unexpected growth in familial bond is Gulliver’s legacy – and Gulliver‘s. Simon Fallaha

Gulliver runs at the Mac, Belfast until October 17. Go here to buy tickets.

Photo Credit: Big Telly NI

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