The Return of the Soldier
Rebecca West, adapted by Charles Miller and Tim Sanders
Hope Mill Theatre
New Wolsey, Ipswich
Rebecca West’s novella was the only book to be written about the First World War by a woman contemporary to the conflict. Written in 1918, it was also one of the first to shine a light on the condition now known as PTSD, ‘shell shock’.
Writers Sanders and Miller have adapted this into a pocket musical of sometimes searing beauty with just two musicians and a cast of five who tell the story of Captain Christopher Baldry and his unsettling memory loss. My friend described it as a cross between Noël Coward’s Private Lives and Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong, recreated in chamber music—and I think that’s probably an apt description.
Mostly told in song, this is a tale of love and loss where all the characters are marked for tragedy. It’s also a tale of class division and how relationships can be both the saving and the destruction of us against the backdrop of a war that changed the lives of literally millions.
The Baldrys live in the Big House at the edge of the village. Christopher has been invalided out of the battle and is coming home to his wife Kitty and cousin Jenny. Unfortunately, shell shock has robbed him of his most recent memories and plunged his mind back to his teenage years when he met and fell in love with the pub landlord’s daughter Margaret.
She has since married herself to ordinary, hard working William, kept from the front by asthma. They rub along happily until out of the blue she receives a love letter from her childhood sweetheart asking her to meet up with him again and rekindle their relationship—and all their lives are thrown into turmoil.
The set is split cleverly between the kitchen of Margaret and William’s cottage and the terrace of the Baldry’s house, juxtapositioning the difference in their lives and circumstances very clearly.
Margaret is sung with fragility by Naomi Slights, Tessa Kadler is a suitably brittle Kitty, Esme Sears gives cousin Jenny a touching sympathy with all the characters, Chris Jenkins is a suitably unhinged Captain Baldry—but the outstanding performance is from Marc Pickering who plays William with a such understated emotion and brings the only humour of the piece out of the psychiatrist Dr Anderson, whose job is to get his patient back to the Front by any means, even if it entails eviscerating his mind.
With pianist Daniel Jarvis and cellist Ines Mata just visible behind the backdrop, this would have been a treat of an evening if reduced in length. The story mainly unfolds through songs which are light and well harmonised but somewhat forgettable in spite of being oft repeated. The story is spun out interminably in the first half and only really picks up in the second with the introduction of the new character of the psychiatrist bringing a little light relief to both the audience and the plot.
There are some extremely poignant moments between the characters, especially towards the end, but the piece is weighted down by too much navel gazing from the main protagonists and the desperate need for a little editing.
Having said that, this is a beautiful, well crafted and directed piece—and I would recommend it if you are prepared to pace yourself through two and a half hours of very arty chamber music and stylized storytelling.
Reviewer: Suzanne Hawkes