The Unreturning, Theatre Royal Stratford East – Review

“Four years since we lost Darren. But a vet doesn’t have to die at war for us to lose them, do you get what I mean?” – The Unreturning

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All photos © Tristram Kenton

The Ancient Greeks knew their stuff. While their epic poems dealt with battles such as the fall of Troy, they were equally attentive to war’s aftermath, suffered by women and soldiers alike. For the heroes like Odysseus and Agamemnon, the journey home was where they faced their greatest crises… Similarly, Anna Jordan’s The Unreturning which is directed by Neil Bettles focuses on three men who return to their home town of Scarborough and continue to wrestle with their demons.

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Taking place over the span of a century, the wars in the play are as idiosyncratic as the men and Britain at that time. There’s George (Jared Garfield) who has served in France during the First World War. There’s also Frankie (Joe Layton) who’s stationed in Afghanistan. Received wisdom says conflicts such as the Second World War, the Falklands or The Troubles would also be contenders. Instead, Jordan has opted for the near future where the division in today’s Britain (possibly as a result of the Brexit referendum) has escalated into civil war. Mirroring Spain from almost a century ago, there’s fighting has between ‘government forces’ and ‘the rebels’. In this scenario, Nat (Jonnie Riordan) makes the hazardous trip to the North East from Norway, where he has spent the past couple of years as a refugee who claimed political asylum. He’ll do anything to track down his younger brother Finn (Kieton Saunders-Browne) – his only remaining family.

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The three storylines run concurrently and take place on a revolving cargo container that doubles as a boat, rooms and an assortment of other locales. Bettles – whose background and experience is with the physically innovative Frantic Assembly – deftly choreographs the three narratives into a cohesive whole, contrasting and reiterating the play’s themes.

The play’s prologue succinctly captures the longing for home after years abroad, where belonging and memories are intertwined. But as the characters find out, reality falls short of expectation. More often than not, the experiences of principal characters have changed them and coming home forces them to redefine what makes sense.

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Not being able to talk to anyone who could – or wants – to understand is the biggest obstacle for the soldiers – estranging them from their loved ones. For George, his wife’s dismissive preconceptions about shellshock hinder any genuine communication between them. Nor would she want to understand the camaraderie between the British and German soldiers during that fateful Christmas of 1914, which had alarm bells ringing amongst the British ‘top brass’.

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Meanwhile for Frankie, his mother is alarmed at the video footage of him, which doesn’t convey the mental and emotional reality of the theatre of war. Nat faces a very different obstacle – his brother Finn has disowned him and joined ‘the rebels’. Counting only his brothers-in-arms as ‘kin’, Finn has no time for anyone who would ‘abandon’ England ‘during her hour of need’…

The impressive central performances are bolstered by the set and video design by Andrzej Goulding, facilitating the fluid, kinetic nature of the show.​ Jordan makes us care for each of the characters and while we may not have direct experience in the line of fire, the emotions of anger, estrangement, frustration and self-doubt are universally relatable.

© Michael Davis 2019

Four-and-a-half stars

The Unreturning runs at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 2nd February

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