Theatre review: The Unreturning

John Nathan is impressed but not cheered by tales of conflict


These days it is almost impossible for a play not to be about Brexit. Even when a play isn’t, that bloody Brexit gets hold of it like an attention-grabbing child.

Take this new work by physical-theatre company Frantic Assembly. Set to Anna Jordan’s poetic script, the show belongs in the war-is-hell genre. Three men, all of them English, each damaged by conflict, share a simple need — to come home.

Traumatised George is discharged from the First World War and heads back to Scarborough and his wife Elizabeth. Soldier Frank has finished his tour in Afghanistan. But his discharge is likely to be the dishonourable kind as it emerges he committed a crime against an innocent Afghan civilian. And now the world has witnessed it because a video of the assault has been uploaded to the internet. Frank’s culpability is not excused here, but it comes with mitigation as we learn of the neglect in terms of support and equipment Frank and his comrades endured while fighting.

The final narrative is that of Nat, whose story is set in the future. He, too, is coming home to Scarborough, though not as a returning soldier, but as a refugee who fled civil war in his own country and is now being people-trafficked by boat back to these shores, much like many of today’s refugees.

Director Neil Bettles superbly interweaves three stories and eras. The action — performed by an all-male cast of four who play multiple characters, including the women in the protagonists’ lives — happens in, around, through and above a revolving shipping container. Location and period changes with the movement of a sliding door.

The internal pandemonium of what we now know to be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is superbly evoked, especially with George, whose brain is still full of explosions and death. All this is conveyed with choreography that is at times almost balletic in the way it physically expresses mental torment.

But it is with Nat’s homecoming story that the play transcends the basic war-is-hell message. With this strand of narrative set in 2026, my guess is that, in development, the initial objective was to place us in the shoes of those whose homeland has been destroyed, and who risk their lives by leaving or returning. The way things are in 2019, it now offers a disturbing glimpse of just how much more divided our country can get.

One gripe: t the pitch and tone of the evening is almost unrelentingly bleak. Granted, it finds a note of redemption for George and offers this up as a moment of hope. But the show seems to forget that, thanks to Frank and especially Nat’s narratives, we know the future for George’s descendants. And it is not bright.

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