A big show for the little people

8th December 1995 at 00:00
The children wear false noses and are cleverly made up. On stage, they feed the giant with fish, cheese and eggs. Then he does a big burp and the children all fall over backwards".

Jeannette Billington is deputy head of Grove Junior School, Malvern, and she's delighted with the progress her Year 6 classes are making on their English String Orchestra education project. The giant is Gulliver. And the children are to play the diminutive Lilliputians in ESO's production of Swift's Gulliver's Travels, an opera involving a cast of 180 young people to be staged in Malvern later this month.

Mark Messenger is the ESO's education officer. "We've had community projects in the Malvern area for some years now", he says. "With Gulliver, we wanted to build on our past success. So we commissioned a new work, devolved it into a series of individual projects and targeted these at schools and youth clubs which we knew, from experience, would be able to manage them".

The 12 projects include Grove Junior's Lilliputians. And the music was commissioned from Colin Riley, who has already worked with pupils locally.

For l0 year-old David Tipple, who plays the Emperor of Lilliput, Riley's music was "Fine, although it was hard to learn", he said. "There are quite a few songs and, sometimes, they go very high. But I'm sure I'll manage it if I work hard".

Beth Williams is a Lilliputian official. She knew little of the original Gulliver's Travels "But my mum's reading the story to me at home", she says.

Which raised the question of the extent to which the often bitter satirical elements in Gulliver are reflected in ESO's production. John Ginman is librettist, producer and director: "We've preserved a strong element of social satire", he says. "But we've pulled back from the bleakness in the final part of Swift's book by suggesting that his idealised view of the Houyhnhnms offers us all a hope for the future. Their values are things worth striving for in contemporary society, and young people know that. Which is why the final image of our production is of Gulliver isolated in a pool of light, reaching out to the Houyhnhnms".

Another production of Gulliver's Travels has just opened l00 miles north of Malvern, at Theatr Clwyd in Mold. Designed by Ralph Steadman and with music by Barrington Pheloung, the production was written by Humphrey Carpenter and is directed by Roger Redfarn.

"If Swift had been living now, he'd have been writing for Spitting Image", says Carpenter. And, indeed, this marvellous production is sometimes reminiscent of the television programme as it sets Gulliver, convincingly played by Jack Klaff, firmly in the present (he's an NHS doctor hi-jacked by the Internet).

Steadman's designs are stunning, creating human spitting images of police, politicians and lap-top computer operators from Laputa with such originality and ferocity that at times the audience is left gasping.

It's a pity, structurally, that so much of the adaptation is devoted solely to Lilliput. But Carpenter's writing is imaginative and pointed (humankind offers the Houyhnhnms "Guns, drugs, tabloid newspapers, racism). And he shares John Ginman's view that Swift's bleakness should be tempered with hope in causing Gulliver ultimately to rediscover his true self.

Staging is brilliantly managed, with a gigantic, tipped-up boot symbolising the reclining "man mountain" in Lilliput and an enormous glass being placed over Gulliver as the Brobdingnagians capture him.

If Swift had been living now, he would have relished this production. Try to see it.

Gulliver's Travels: ESO, Malvern Festival Theatre, December 13 to 15 at 7.30pm. Box office 01684 892277. FSO 01684 560696. Theatr Clwyd Company, Theatr Clwyd Main Theatre, Mold, until January 20 at 2pm and 7.30pm. Box office 01352 755114

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