Four decades after it was founded, the Lilliput Children’s Theatre – whose name was inspired by Jonathan’s Swift’s novel, Gulliver’s Travels – continues to journey with “little people” under the artistic direction of Noble Douglas. With a smattering of everything- from storytelling to dance, these “little people” are bringing “BIG” issues to the forefront in their fortieth anniversary production “BIG”, directed by Wendell Manwarren with choreography by Noble Douglas, Arlene Frank, Charlene Harris and Tonya Evans. As they dipped their fingers in murky pools of dark stories, offering us an unwanted taste of things forcibly forgotten, we were transported from their homeland of Lilliput, where they- the Lilliputians, recount the tale of their enmity with their neighbour, Blefuscu, to current global issues such as; the fleeing of refugees, child brides and the kidnapping of female children to sell as slaves. What a way to celebrate! Go “BIG” or go home. I agree.
Moving along, to put my attendance into context, I was invited to attend their dress rehearsal/media night to “review” their performance because if you’re reading this, then you know that’s what I do. But kids, kids, kids. It’s hard to keep a straight face when they fill your heart with so many “Aww” moments that frankly, even if there were points to critique it simply goes out the door. Being the first ‘Lilliputian Show’ I attended, I consider myself a clean slate, went in with no expectations and left with a spark of hope as the young ones lit up the stage. I can safely say we’re leaving the keys to the theatre in good hands. Still, I’m here to do a job and a job I will do. So with that “read”, let’s get on with it.
I would admit that in the beginning I felt like a fish out of water as i was unable to understand the framework and the flow until I was emailed the programme the day after. Then I realized how heavily dependent the show was on the programme which technically, it shouldn’t be. Any performance should hold its own and “BIG” could have. Additionally, I had to crane my head forward to figure out what was being said. It may have been a matter of background music that was too loud, and/or the insufficient articulation by some of the young performers, but the impact would’ve been more effective if I didn’t have to devote so much energy paying careful attention to the text. In one of the early segments where adjectives and synonyms were being used to describe the word “big” was lost on me until one boy sprang up with “GINORMOUS”. In a split second, he hit the word and turned it around. It’s fascinating, the capacity of a theatre performance to flip the switch and rope the audience back in completely. That’s when I connected with the action and really began paying attention.
It’s evident the children had a wonderful team behind them -with Knolly Whiskey on lights and costumes inspired by Merylle Mahabir’s Kiddies Carnival presentation concerning issues in the Middle East and Africa- there are no complaints with the technical aspect. The costuming reflected a mix in age, race and the colours of the national flag, projections on cyclorama sometimes denoted time of day or conveyed place while the bare stage was simply a vehicle for anything to take place. Perhaps I’m wrong or right but in my mind they all worked well. I particularly liked the choice of the bare stage because they brought things in, filling and shaping the space instead of having a constant set up. Through props and costuming, the imagery that was created are still imprinted on my mind- especially the scenes where the children carrying bundles depicting the journey of the refugees, as well as the scene concerning child brides where one male child dominated the space as he was flocked by girls. Make a statement without saying a word.
My favourite character was definitely “The Voice of Darkness”. One kid on top of the other, portraying a bigger entity terrorizing the little ones. It was carnivalesque in a sense, reminiscent of the speeches of the Midnight Robber and the movement of the Moko Jumbies. In the scene a “little person” defeats “the giant” aka “The Voice of Darkness”, resembling the story of David and Goliath. The theatricality and imagery of that specific scene spoke volumes and to me summed up the entire show. I would’ve liked to see more of that originality incorporated.
Since the show jumps from story to dance to action, with the programme being the through line delineating the shifts in story, it was difficult to tell when the story switched to something else. Just reiterating. So by the second half I pieced together the show because after the intermission, the speech clarity had improved. Then when I finally found myself watching the performance, it was gearing up for the ending- Just as I was really into it. Cues loud “steups”. Of interest, is the process for creating this work with kids and their responses. I felt that if they had a deeper understanding of what they were participating in, they might’ve handled the text differently while still retaining their childish innocence. But that’s just useless speculation.
While, the storytelling element drove the performance forward making sense of the dances that followed, eventually it got tedious as the same approach was used for each story. I liked the idea of each child telling a part of the story and the use of repetition to stress on the important points however, to break up the linearity of it, the inclusion of tableau to create visual interest or have a child who was telling the story at that point, take on a personality that was possibly mentioned during the storytelling, could’ve been considered.
With most of the performance being comprised of dance choreography, the drama aspect takes a backseat now, as I offer my two cents on the dance’s contribution to the artistic whole. The images were strong and executed with a fiery spirit by some. I distinctly remember a small boy who I couldn’t take my eyes off of as he stepped in time with an uncharacteristic vigour for his age. His passion was heartening. I apologize for not being able to put a name to the face due to the cast being sizeable. I loved the motif of the kite introduced in the first dance that carried through, especially when it was used to fight “The Voice of Darkness”. Also, a fixed image in my mind is of a girl lifting someone else during a song which immediately reminded me of adults’ responsibilities towards children, to pick them up when they can’t go on. Those little details can stick, that’s what we’re left with.
The final image of the company entering, lit by a back light that cast rays on the stage floor, showed that these children are our future, our rays of light. It was beautiful as they recited their vision together. Apart from minor fixable flaws, “BIG” is full of “big” potential, “big” goals and “big” accomplishments by “little people”. As Lilliput ushers in a new year, let’s wish them well and another forty years as they continue to strive to keep culture alive showcasing new talent and cultivating an appreciation for the arts in the upcoming generations.
Don’t Miss Lilliput’s Children’s Theatre BIG Finish 5:30pm today (Sunday 17th May 2015) at Queen’s Hall.