Underbelly (Big Belly), Cowgate, Edinburgh
Gulliver Returns, written and directed by Dan Coleman, is an interesting piece of work. We first meet Lil (Cathy Conneff), whose introduction warns us that her husband, Adam (Jack Bence), has recently started demanding that she call him Lemuel Gulliver, and that he identifies completely with the protagonist of Swift’s most famous book.
What follows is a clever interweaving of Gulliver’s Travels and Adam’s apparent breakdown, the novel serving as an allegory for Adam’s struggle to cope with bereavement, with loss. Lil humours him, supports him, helps him to tell his tall tales – because she loves him and she wants him to be well. As Gulliver, he moves ever further away from her; by joining in his stories, she tries to draw him back.
It’s serious stuff, with a lot to say about mental health as well as an analysis of a fine piece of literature. But it’s funny too – often laugh out loud – as Lil mediates Lemuel’s pomposity, punctures his self-aggrandisement and sets him right on a few things.
Both actors are first-rate, actually; we are drawn into the horror of their disintegrating marriage, fearing for them even as we laugh at their antics. And there’s some innovative use of puppetry, the Houyhnhnm in particular a curious spectacle. The set – three bookcases and a stool – is remarkably effective, conveying oceans as well as living rooms, simultaneously vast and stifling.
The only thing that lets this down is the venue: there’s water dripping on the bare concrete stairs that lead up to Big Belly, and it stinks in there of damp and mould. But still, it’s worth steeling yourself and putting up with the fetid air for this quirky, fascinating play.