Combining Frantic Assembly’s trademark physicality, a poetic script and glossy production values, The Unreturning is a breath-taking theatrical triumph.
1918. 2013. 2026. World War I, Afghanistan, a future civil war. These three triptych’s form the basis of Anna Jordan’s new play for Frantic Assembly. Past, present and future collide through the stories of three men who want to return home from war, and examines the effects that conflict has on them. Performed by an all male cast, all of whom have previous taken part in Frantic Assembly’s Ignition project, The Unreturning features the companies trademark physicality and an incredibly versatile set to fantastic effect.
George (Jared Garfield) is a solider returning home from the end of WWI. Scarred by the horrors of trench warfare and torn apart by shellshock, George is greeted as a war hero, but is unable return to a normal life. Frankie (Joe Layton) returns home from Afghanistan after having been dishonourably discharged after an incident in Helmand province, and is haunted by the repercussions of his actions. Nat (Jonnie Riorden) is a refuge from an unspecified future conflict desperate to get back home – only in this story home doesn’t represent safety, but the line of fire itself. These three stories, told with poetic and evocative language, collide in a powerful production.
One of Frantic Assembly’s trademarks in their physicality has always been to take emotion and portray it through seamless and often breath-taking movement sequences. The Unreturning is no exception to this. Director Neil Bettles manages to fuse the strong script with muscular movement to great effect. Scenes in which we see the devastating psychological impact on these men are cleverly choreographed, and the performers use their physicality well to multi-role as the other characters in their respective stories. The choice to only use male performers in an interesting one, and means we get male performers acting as wives or mothers in each others monologues. These performances feel absolutely true, and never wander into caricature or stereotype.
Aside from the strong performances, the production design of The Unreturning is brilliant. The set is designed by Andrze Goulding, and utilizes a shipping container both as a canvas on which to project things, but also as a multitude of different and ever shifting locations. Cleverly rotating with a series of sliding panels, frames and doors it becomes (among other things) a dug out, boat, lorry, house and asylum. As the set dizzyingly rotates, it becomes both a way of creating place, but also a way of demonstrating the fractured and spiralling minds of the three damaged men. Adding to this, is the lighting and sound design by Zoe Spurr and Pete Malkin respectively, who create incredible soundscapes and cinematic lighting which compliments the production perfectly.
While the production is about men who return home from war, it is interesting that The Unreturning remains decidedly neutral about war itself and chooses instead to focus on the personal effect rather than the political choice. Of the three stories, the 2026 monologue is the weakest, perhaps because of its vagueness. It occasionally dabbles a little too much in generic dystopian themes, and perhaps because of this it is difficult to connect to the story. What it does present is a powerful message is in its discussion of refuges, and refuge camps. Despite being ‘safe’ in Norway, Nat is desperate to leave to squalor and degradation of living in a camp, regardless of the personal risk. As the production comes to its stunning finale, we are left reeling from the damage that has been done to these men who have risked all “For Queen and Country”. Combining Frantic Assembly’s trademark physicality, a poetic script, and glossy production values, The Unreturning is a breath-taking theatrical triumph.
The Unreturning is currently on a nationwide tour. For more information and dates, check out Frantic Assembly’s website.
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Photo: Tristram Kenton