Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels to ‘vex the populace’. Elizabeth Newman put it on to please them. Elizabeth Newman won.

In her programme note, Newman says that before she got the job as artistic director of Bolton Octagon she talked to lots of locals and found that Boltonians favour the underdog. And she thought Queen’s Park would be a great place for a show. She was right.

It’s not really Gulliver’s Travels, it’s actually Gulliver in Lilliput. But that’s the bit of the book everybody knows, and the hugely experienced dramatist Mike Kenny and relative newcomer Satinder Chohan have collaborated to create a community play based on the story. With only four actors credited in the programme, the cast of thousands –it seems – comes from the 70–strong young company, 16 members of the adult company, and a choir of about 80.

Swift intended the story as a satire on the relationship between Britain and France, with Lilliput and their enemy Blefusco eternally at war over the correct way to open a boiled egg. The writers have chosen to use it to explore the role of the outsider arriving in a strange land. The Octagon was recently named as a Theatre of Sanctuary because of its work with the community in Bolton, especially refugees and asylum seekers, and this production is part of that.

There are problems with putting this story on the stage. The Lilliputians are only six inches tall, and at one point Gulliver wades out to sea and captures all the ships of the Blefuscan fleet before it can invade. The Octagon team have solved both of these problems brilliantly, not least with a coup de théâtre. The other would be too if the storytelling around it wasn’t a bit muddy and,if I have a quibble, that would be it, that in places the storytelling is unclear. This may be a consequence of scale and nobody seems to mind, but it could be sharper. 

Michael Peavoy as Gulliver and Anne O’Riordan as his daughter lead us through the story and the landscape with great energy and charm. Marc Small is extremely engaging as the leader of the Lilliputians who capture Gulliver, and Alexander Bean puts his wonderful bass voice to good use in his extremely pompous king.

The technical problems of an open air show are legion, particularly with a first production in a new space, but the Octagon team led by Newman and her associate director Ben Occhipinti have delivered. We can see everything and we can hear everything, and if they do a show here again next year they will discover more ways to exploit the landscape. The Octagon is closed for refurbishment until around early 2020, and in the interim will be mounting productions in all sorts of different spaces. I look forward to seeing what else it can do. 

Meanwhile, Newman is off to be artistic director of the Pitlochry theatre in Scotland, and she goes with Northern Soul’s best wishes and our congratulations on realising her ambitions in the park. We await news of her successor with great interest.

By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor

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Gulliver’s Travels is on until August 27, 2018. For more information, click here.