Scarborough. It’s 1918, 2013 and 2026. Huh, I hear you say? It’s all possible when you have a war Tardis on stage, a revolving shipping container that morphs into a home, a boat, a bar, the trenches and a refugee camp, transcending time and place. This is the skillful work of Frantic Assembly in its latest production, The Unreturning, currently playing at Theatre Royal Stratford East during a nationwide tour.
The Unreturning chronicles the story of three men, shattered by war and questioning their male identity. They return to their homeplace of Scarborough to discover that everything has changed. They’re misunderstood and maligned by the people who once were their parents, nans, wives and best friends. There is no turning back.
The play opens in 2026 in a Norwegian refugee camp with our first hero, Nat. He’s fled from a war-torn dystopian Britain to the promised land of Norway, but he’s stuck in a dingy camp, waiting for his brother, Finn, to pitch up.
Over in 2013, Frankie is coming home from Afghanistan. All he wants is a hero’s welcome, with banners, balloons, sausage rolls and a line of coke, but he’s been dishonourably discharged. He was caught on-camera beating up an Afghan man, whom he suspected of being a Taliban. His crimes made a frontpage splash in The Sun, and he’s now been cast off by his family.
And in 1918, George dreams of a cup of tea, from a pot. He can smell the scent of his wife Rose’s carbolic lavender from hell: the trenches in Germany. He’s lost all his friends here, and for a moment, forges a new friendship with a German, Fritz, during a Christmas Truce Day when “No Man’s Land becomes Every Man’s Land.”
Writing is the work of the brilliant Anna Jordan. It’s an anguished piece, more poetry than play. It’s supported by Neil Bettles’s artfully choreographed direction, which enhances the trademark physicality of Frantic Assembly. Full marks go to set designer Andrzej Goulding and his spinning container and to Zoe Spurr for the incandescent lighting design. Pete Malkin’s slick cinematic soundscape also deserves big applause.
With super stylish performances by Jared Garfield, Joe Layton, Jonnie Riordan and Kieton Saunders-Browne, The Unreturning delivers 100 minutes of gripping, haunting, smart theatre. Go see.
Playing at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until 2 February, Chichester Festival Theatre, Minerva (5 – 9 February), Curve, Leicester (11 – 16 February), Taliesin Arts Centre (21 – 23 February) and Oxford Playhouse (25 February – 1 March). Book tickets here.
A note about Frantic Assembly
Ignition, the theatre company’s national training programme for young men, aged 16 to 20, celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. The programme seeks out talent in unexpected places, from sports groups to youth centres, and is committed to helping young men find their individual and collective strength. No experience of the arts is necessary to participate. Frantic collaborates with regional arts partners across the UK through its Taster and Trial workshops, from which 12 of the brightest and bravest young men are selected to form the Ignition Company. They then spend five days living and working together in London where they will create an original performance with Frantic Assembly.
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