The Unreturning

Anna Jordan
Frantic Assembly and Theatre Royal Plymouth
Theatre Royal, Stratford East
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Frantic Assembly’s latest production, which premièred in Plymouth last September and now starts the second leg of its tour, is a vibrant total theatre piece. Director Neil Bettles combines Anna Jordan’s emotionally charged script, with its rich passages of free verse, with the kinetic setting and video projections of Andrzej Goulding, a brilliant music and soundscape from Pete Malkin, Zoe Spurr’s lighting and the company’s signature physicality.

It presents the parallel stories of three men from Scarborough from three different time periods who each returns to his home town. It is 1918 when shell-shocked George (Joe Layton) makes his way from the Western Front back to wife Rose, 2013 when Frankie (Jared Garfield) returns from Afghanistan traumatised by his shooting of a civilian Afghan boy and 2026 in a dystopian future when the UK is riven by civil war when refugee Nat (Jonnie Riordan) is smuggled back to England in search of the younger brother from whom he was separated as they fled from their home.

All three carry a burden of guilt, at least in their own minds, all three meet a reception that is not what they expected, their stories interwoven to provide a picture of masculinity challenged, of the trauma that war brings, coming together like the themes in a string trio to make a wider, stronger statement than each on its own.

These are not new themes. post-traumatic stress disorder and behaviour during conflict have been prominent in theatre’s marking of the World War I centenary, the refugee crisis found dramatic expression, though there is a twist here in bringing domestic conflict to a possibly post-Brexit Britain, making the refugee one of our own.

It is not just the subject that make this a gripping piece of theatre but the way it is presented.

The setting is what looks like a metal shipping container, its sides opening in multiple doorways, which revolves in a way that makes it almost an additional character, creating a dramatic sense of suspension and anticipation. That also allows brief moments for rapid changes of costume detail as actors switch character to play the many support roles, of which Kieton Saunders-Browne takes on many, as well playing Nat’s brother Finn, and it takes only holding a dress in front of him to establish Jared Garfield as George’s wife Rose.

These are all men who have been changed by experience, whose home is not the same as when they left it, no longer the Scarborough of memory that is captured in the plays opening verse. They are indeed unreturned for there is no going back to what they remembered.

This is a production in which both actors’ and technical timing is immaculate, a co-ordination as careful as that of Frantic Assembly’s stylized physicality. Such precision could sometimes emphasise form at the expense of the content but the truthfulness and honesty of the actors carry us with them.

It is interesting to note that all four actors are alumnae of Frantic’s Ignition project, a free vocational programme that has since 2008 trained over 140 young male performers.

Howard Loxton