By Nigel Smith
ANY show by Frantic Assembly brings with it expectations of pace, movement and thought provoking material and, with The Unreturning, they certainly deliver on all three counts.
Three men are returning home to Scarborough from the theatre of war. The three separate stories are set in very different times spread over more than a century, and weaving these threads together enables a telling comparison between eras. The attitudes of society to the lives and actions of soldiers in action are thrown into stark contrast. George, played by Jared Garfield, comes home in 1918, shell-shocked and dazed, to a wife he barely seems to recognise. Joe Layton’s Frankie returns from Afghanistan in 2013 to find everyone questioning his motives as a result of a video that has gone viral in the media. Jonnie Riordan is Nat, who arrives to a home that hardly exists following an imagined civil war in 2026.
All three find that they have very different but equally challenging battles to fight with themselves and those around them. Far from returning to any kind of normality, they are the unreturning, because their lives will never be the same again as a result of the mental scars they bear.
The entire cast, which is completed by Kieton Saunders-Browne, as Nat’s brother Finn and other characters, give powerful and deeply felt performances whilst also delivering the brand of extreme physicality that Frantic Assembly is fuelled by. Their ability to slip from one character to another in the moment is extraordinary – notice particularly Layton’s characterisation of George’s wife, which is a breathtakingly delicate piece of acting. Director Neil Bettles has had a serious balancing act to perform in maintaining the pace whilst aiming for narrative clarity, which he just about manages to pull off.
The set by Andrzej Goulding features a revolving shipping container which morphs into various forms through the use of folding and sliding panels. Goulding has also designed the mapped projections that complete these transformations. A pounding soundscape by Pete Malkin underpins the action with increasing menace.
Powerful and mesmerising as it is, there’s often a sense in which the sheer theatricality of the performance overwhelms the depth of the subject matter. Whilst it is a striking and indeed moving piece of theatre, it’s hard not to be more mindful of the cleverness of the staging than the importance of the message.
This is both a timely and important piece of writing from Anna Jordan. With the mental health of armed forces personnel very much in the public consciousness, these interwoven stories aim to both reflect and portend, and serve as a serious call to arms for those who support them.