Touring – reviewed at Curve Leicester
1918. 2013. 2026. Scarborough. Anna Jordan’s play about three different men returning from (or amidst) war is a startling delve into the pull and promise of home, and the larger issues of (national) identity which spawn from that. What happens when the perceptions of home (what it is, where it is, who it is) are different to the reality of home? Frantic Assembly’s production probes these questions with astonishing physicality, showing that the same issues transcend generations no matter what the conflict.
The Unreturning is a triptych of stories continually interweaving. In 1918, George returns home to Scarborough from the frontline of the trenches to a wife he doesn’t recognise and who doesn’t recognise him. She tells him to push the terrors of war out of his mind and take pride in the gore and death that her husband brought to the enemy. He is in the throes of what we now know to be PTSD, the lonely depths of which Neil Bettles doesn’t shy away from staging.
Similarly, in 2013, Frankie returns home to Scarborough from Afghanistan. Far from the hero’s welcome of sausage rolls he was perhaps expecting, he finds his mum, his town and even his country turned away from him. His mum can barely look at him, an angry mob is on his doorstep, and journalists are queuing up to throw him to the bears.
We hear that in Afghanistan, he physically attacked and racially abused a civilian. The attack, and the support this gains from his friends in the pub, raises questions about the often-blurred line between patriotism and bigotry, and how easily people forget about the human loss in war. But it also raises questions about blame: has Frankie been scapegoated for the wider attitudes of an us/them mentality?
And in 2026, Nat embarks on a long journey back home in an imagined future England in the midst of a rebel war. All three have to come to terms with a home which is now unrecognisable.
It’s in Jordan’s text that home is the most strongly and nostalgically conjured – that is, through what characters (mis)remember or desire about home. Her poetry here is honest and lyrical. It may remind some people of Carol Anne Duffy’s text for My Country but it’s far better. Whereas Duffy’s text crowbarred a generic list of national and local stereotypes, Jordan’s words feel personal, stemming from what the characters miss most.
But I also think that Jordan’s text is smarter than that. The waxed lyrical ‘hedgerows, fish and chips shops and neat rows of terraced houses’ are edged with a knowingness that these images and questions pervade all three men’s lives spanning over 100 years just as they’ve pervaded British drama for however long. But for each of the men, as in drama, they are unanswered and unrequited. We don’t see Blighty; only ever hear about it or imagine it. It’s a romantic vision of home seen through the mind of someone horrifically torn away from it. The text is also great at conjuring a contemporary setting – or should that be recent history. Jordan evocatively captures a young man in 2013: looking forward to opening his front door and seeing his mum but also going ‘out’ out, downing jaeger bombs, singing in the streets and shagging bins.
Gender is also interestingly used in The Unreturning. The women in the play are either rudimentary puppets of actors holding up a dress and a hat, or are played by the male actors doubling up. At one time, the result is Joe Layton’s muscular and masculine Frankie quickly switching to an overtly feminine and soft depiction of George’s wife. This could easily be called (that lazy word) problematic but I think that what Bettles cleverly does is make us confront gender and the roles men and women play – or at least typically have played or have had to play – in wars. Most of the audience at this performance was made up of school groups. I think they’ve got a material of riches to think/write about, and thank goodness school trips to the theatre still take place and to productions this inspiring.
Andrzej Goulding’s set and video design is staggeringly good. As we enter, a shipping container sits on a beach. Over the course of the play, this spins round, opens up and appears to expand and shrink, becomes pubs and lorries, bunkers and cliff edges, war zones overseas and Scarborough living rooms. We see it as a place of conflict, transit, displacement, alienation but rarely ever home. In fact, the scenes set at home are when a sense of home is least present. With a pang of light and sound George is taken from his home and is back in the darkness of war; the scene between Frankie and his mum I seem to remember as the coldest and saddest in the play; and when Nat does go back home, he feels threatened and confused. It’s a multipurpose set at its most fulfilled, impressively used but in a way which is always anchored in the needs of the story.
Frantic Assembly’s production is confrontational yet sensitive, and extremely physical yet with a close focus. I’m not overly familiar with Frantic’s work but surely this is the epitome of contemporary theatre, where a creative team comes together in equal force: a smart text packed with heart, movement which ceaselessly takes the story forward, a set design which complements the movement and highlights the stark contrast between war and home, lighting and sound which immerse us in the world of the play, and four actors fully committed to telling this story. A great bit of theatre!
The Unreturning plays at Curve, Leicester until 16th February and then continues its tour until 1st March, 2019.
The company of The Unreturning. Credit: Tristram Kenton