The Unreturning at Theatre Royal Stratford East
The stage production of Anna Jordan and Frantic Assembly’s The Unreturning tells the story of three generations affected by war, all searching for home, in the Coastal town of Scarborough.
1918, 2013 and 2026. The years flash onto a shipping container as Agnes Obel’s hauntingly beautiful song, Familiar, plays; it’s a perfect choice. The cast alternate in rotating the container, while revealing expansive inner space with sliding doors and panels. The Prologue, titled Longing, discloses the men’s desires, their yearning to return to a home they understand.
George (Jared Garfield), a young First World War soldier, comes back shell-shocked, lacking a means of proper communication with his wife, Rose. Frankie (Joe Layton), is a dishonourably discharged veteran from the Afghan war, haunted by his actions, and Nat (Jonnie Riordan), leaves the safety of a refugee camp in Norway to search for his brother Finn ((Kieton Saunders-Browne), who has joined rebel forces amidst a civil war in the UK.
George recalls the Christmas Day Armistice, and spectators can clearly hear his troubled exhaustion. After his fellow troops are killed in the trenches, his shell shock is so extreme that he cannot work in the railway stations. One of the most moving scenes from tonight’s performance is when his doctor drops a chair to see the effect on George; the cast’s expressive movements, directed by Neil Bettles, embodies shell shock in breathtaking fashion. Zoe Spurr’s lighting extraordinarily highlights the trauma of the men, while sound designer Pete Malkin’s music enhances visuals of the set and video design by Andrzej Goulding.
Though the script seems a little pedestrian at times, this cannot detract from the way Jordan’s play reinforces how men are continually sacrificed for the greater good, and where there are humans, there will always be war. The actors portray their central and minor characters seamlessly; particularly great performances come from Layton as Rose and Garfield’s George. Nat’s story – though initially a little muddled – is a reminder of the current refugee crisis, and the trio’s accounts are a poetic reflection on masculinity, injustices of war and the price of freedom from oppressors. The journey home is fraught with loss, of physically returning, but not completely.
Photos: Tristram Kenton
The Unreturning is at Theatre Royal Stratford East from 16th January until 2nd February 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.