The Unreturning at Theatre Royal Stratford East
Frantic Assembly’s production of Anna Jordan’s fearless play lives up to its name in The Unreturning.
What’s it like to dream of home, a return to familiarity and domesticity…community, family, friends? To long for comforts and details vivid in memory, realer-than-real? And then how is it to arrive, only to find home is the past, gone for good – and no way back there ever?
Frantic Assembly – the renowned physical theatre company best known for their Tony Award-winning Curious Incident of the Dog in Nighttime – delivers a shocking, sometimes confusing, yet beautifully somatic and lyrical insight into the haunting lives of three soldiers from the past (1918), present (2013) and future (2026), all returning home in hope of discovering what once was.
Neil Bettles’s fluid direction is set in an unforgiving environment, one which is perfectly depicted by Pete Malkin’s stark music and Andrzej Goulding’s brutal set comprising a large metal shipping container which disorientates as it rotates, and provides a vessel for the trenches, a bar and an unwelcome home amongst other locations.
A strong cast of four male actors – all graduates of Frantic’s Ignition youth theatre programme – plays multiple roles; that of the three soldiers – George (Hollyoaks’s Jared Garfield), Frankie (Joe Layton), Nat (Jonnie Riordan) and Kieton Saunders Brown who makes his stage debut as Finn, and also other characters including George’s wife Rose and Frankie’s mother, shifting seamlessly and gracefully between the sexes.
Garfield gives a vivid, touching performance as George, who is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and who has been deeply shell-shocked by World War 1 and his experiences in the trenches. He’s longing to make love with his wife, but she is faced with a shadow of his former self and doesn’t understand what he’s become. Layton gives a raw portrayal of the macho Frankie; he has been dishonourably discharged from Afghanistan after brutally injuring an innocent child. Frankie is longing for home comforts and a hero’s welcome. Instead, he receives a cold shoulder and bitter truth, both from his mother and the locals, echoing his painful isolation and feelings of guilt
Nat’s narrative is set in an apocalyptic future world; having fled a refugee camp in Norway he is negotiating his return to home Scarborough in order to find his younger brother Finn. What he discovers is not the town he remembers, but one of utter devastation.
What is clear is from these interwoven narratives is that no one who hasn’t swallowed down terror and fought and survived fire-fights day after day, and seen their mates maimed and killed, in trenches and mud, in deserts, in some blasted, baking, filthy fly-infested faraway hell-hole, or paid everything to ruthless strangers to cross a wide, cold sea in a little boat, can possibly begin to comprehend…Mostly we’d prefer not to know, for the very good reason that to know such things is a one-way ticket to where innocence dies, and there’s no way home.
The Unreturning drags you through viscera and shell-shock, friendships forged in fear and rage and compassion, bewildering losses. At times muddled and unclear, delivered with skill and passion, it is poignant and ultimately devastating.
Theatre Royal Stratford East,
Gerry Raffles Square, E15 1BN.
Runs until 2 February 2019.
We also recommend Caroline or Change, now showing at The Playhouse, London