When the staging of a play is minimal and the cast small, every part of the production must be engaging in order to succeed. The Unreturning achieves this with ease.
Playwright Anna Jordan’s impressive piece in collaboration with Frantic Assembly and Theatre Royal Plymouth depicts the varying struggles of four men coming home from three different wars. George is a sensitive and traumatised young man returning from the first world war, Frankie a laddish soldier sent back from Iraq in 2013, and Finn and Nat are two brothers living through an imagined war in 2026 where Britain has turned to rubble. Joe Layton as Frankie and Jared Garfield as George, in particular, are allowed to show range in their performance by each playing multiple characters: Garfield switches easily between the childlike, tortured George, and Russ, the aggressive drunken friend of Frankie. Layton impresses with his two most significant roles as macho Frankie and Rose, the hurt and confused wife of George.
All the actors took part in the company’s Ignition programme, which seeks out talented and untrained young men from various backgrounds and gives them a week-long course that results in a performance. Scenes between Rose and George are choreographed beautifully with the company’s trademark physicality; the contrast between watching two men act out a heterosexual relationship so thoughtfully and the play’s exploration of toxic masculinity during wartime is a testament to how Frantic Assembly seeks to break down rigid boundaries of the male experience on the stage.
Whilst there is interaction between characters, a large portion of the dialogue is delivered in monologue form with an unexpected lyricism that can occasionally come across a bit too much like a spoken word performance. If there is in parts a lack of subtlety, this is due to the immense complexity of the subject matter in the interwoven stories which, despite sometimes leaving the audience wanting to see more connection and substance, do indeed work well and produce an overall affecting play.
A lasting question is what could have caused a 2026 Britain whose citizens flee as refugees in boats and where rebels engage with a ‘North Sea Alliance’. The mind instantly turns to our present European struggles as the possible catalyst for this future war, which presents troubling questions for the audience. 1918 George hails the birth of his child with hope as a ‘beginning’, with the hopeful ending undercut by its location in a past that we know was merely the start of modern conflict. The lingering implication that past mistakes will inevitably be repeated leaves little cause for optimism, but if this is the future of British theatre we could well have something to be hopeful for after all.
24th – 27th October
Image: Frantic Assembly